Pakistan's military suffered an embarrassing blow yesterday when militants stormed an air force base reportedly linked to the country's nuclear weapons arsenal and launched a gun battle that lasted several hours.
All nine insurgents were killed by Pakistani commandos.
In a move that highlighted inadequate security at the country’s military establishments and raised fresh fears about the safety of its nuclear programme, the militants used rocket launchers, suicide vests and automatic weapons to carry out the pre-dawn attack at the Minhas Air Force base at Kamra, 25 miles from Islamabad. A soldier was killed in the operation to stop the militants.
The Pakistan Taliban later took responsibility for the assault saying it had been carried out to revenge the 2009 killing of its leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was hit by a US missile, and last year’s operation by US special forces that killed Osama Bin Laden. According to the Associated Press, a Taliban spokesman claimed that three jets at the base had been damaged by the militants.
The Minhas base, named for a Pakistani national hero who gave his life to prevent an air force instructor defecting to India is 1971, has been targeted several times before, though this was the first time militants were able to penetrate the perimeter.
While the base is home to many fighter jets - among them F-16s – and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems, many observers believe it is also linked to the country’s nuclear arsenal.
The US defence secretary Leon Panetta told reporters there was a persistent concern of weapons finding their way to militants. “The great danger we’ve always feared is that, you know, if terrorism is not controlled in their country, that those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands,” he said at the Pentagon.
The attack at Minhas comes 15 months after militants launched a major assault on a naval base in Karachi, killing at least 10 people and destroying two US-supplied surveillance aircraft. It took Pakistani commandos 18 hours to retake the base and at the time there were claims the military had been infiltrated.
Some observers repeated those concerns in regard to yesterday’s attack. “I think this was inside information,” said author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, who said previous attacks on Minhas may also have involved infiltration of the military.
In recent days there has mounting speculation that, under intense pressure from the US, the Pakistani military is poised to launch an operation against militants in North Waziristan, among them the Haqqani network - blamed for cross-border attacks on US troops in Afghanistan. Mr Panetta said he had been told an operation would be launched soon.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst, said the Minhas base represented a “point of pride” for the air force. “It’s a huge embarrassment,” he said. Dr Rizvi said the incident, launched at around 2am, raised concerns not just about security at military installations, but about ongoing operational links between militants from the country’s tribal areas and those in the heartland. “Usually our experience is that these groups have local hosts who operate in that area,” he added.
Pakistan’s military said the attack on Minhas was dealt with by security forces which were subsequently joined by a team of commandos.
They fought for at least two hours before retaking control of the base. The head of the base, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, was wounded in the shoulder during the attack.
Just hours after the attack Minhas, suspected militants in north-west Pakistan forced passengers to step out of three buses and shot dead 22 of them in an apparent sectarian attack.
Officials said about 15 armed men wearing army uniforms checked the identification cards of the passengers and then opened fire after learning they were Shias. "It is confirmed at least 22 people are dead," said a senior police official.
Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state, and most Sunnis and Shias live peacefully together. But the country has a long history of sectarian attacks by extremists on both sides.