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Karachi airport attack: Taliban 'trying to hijack plane' in assault that left dozens dead

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The Pakistan Taliban has claimed responsibility for a jolting, deadly attack on Karachi’s airport that led at least 28 people dead – including 10 militants. The group suggested it had been trying to hijack a plane.

In developments that will reverberate across Pakistan and beyond, the group said it launched the assault in revenge for a US drone attack that killed its leader. A senior Pakistani politician said several of the well-trained fighters appeared to be foreign and were equipped for a protracted operation.

The attack on the airport and the claiming of responsibility by the Taliban will present another challenge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has been involved in faltering efforts to establish a ceasefire and peace agreement with the militants.

Echoing a May 2011 attack on a naval base in Karachi, the Taliban operation will also intensify fears about Pakistan’s ability to guard supposedly secure facilities such as the airport that came under assault. Eleven of those killed were members of the airport security force.

The attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport was launched at around midnight by 10 gunmen, some wearing military uniform, who shot their way into the facility, located in the east of the port city. Ten hours later, with smoke billowing from the site following fires that had blazed throughout the night, security forces were still conducting patrols to ensure all the militants had been killed or captured.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, said the attack had been carried out in revenge for a US drone strike last November in North Waziristan that killed its then leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. The spokesman said it was also to protest over the conditions being endured by Taliban prisoners in Pakistani jails.

“The main goal of this attack was to damage the government, including by hijacking planes and destroying state installations,” Mr Shahid told the Reuters news agency. “This was just an example of what we are capable of and there is more to come. The government should be ready for even worse attacks.”

Tariq Azim, a spokesman for Mr Sharif, the prime minister, said initial inquiries suggested several of the militants were foreign. He said they may have been Chechen or Uzbek.

He said they had been found to be carrying water, biscuits and dried chick peas. “They were preparing for a long siege and were intending to stay there for some time,” he told The Independent.

The main operation to kill the militants lasted up to five hours, but reports said gunfire subsequently broke out at around 9.30am. It was unclear whether this was the result of Pakistani security forces discharging their weapons or something else.

“Ten militants aged between 20 and 25 have been killed by security forces,” a spokesman for the paramilitary Rangers told reporters. “A large cache of arms and ammunition has been recovered from the militants.”

Pakistan’s paramilitary force said at least some of the attackers were ethnic Uzbeks. Pakistani officials have previously blamed foreign militants holed-up along the Afghan border for staging attacks alongside the Pakistani Taliban around the country. Reports said three of the fighters detonated suicide vests while the other seven were killed by the security forces.

It remains unclear how close the militants came to achieving their aim of hijacking a plane. Reports said three international flights were due to leave the airport between 11pm on Sunday and 1am on Monday, bound for Sharjah, Bangkok and Dubai.

For a number of hours, all flights to Karachi were diverted to other airports. However, officials said no said no aircraft had been damaged during the attack, updating initial reports that suggested the militants had set fire to some planes.

The assault followed a bomb attack in Taftan, a district on the border with Iran, that killed at least two dozen Shia pilgrims. Many more people were injured in the attack on the hotel where the pilgrims were staying.