Pakistan Taliban claims Karachi airport assault

Explosions and gunfire through the night as 27 die in security forces battle with attackers

Militants stormed Pakistan’s biggest airport last night and at least 27 people were killed in a night-long battle at one of the country’s most high-profile targets.

The assault on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan's sprawling commercial hub of 18 million people, took place as prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government tries to engage Taliban militants in talks to end years of fighting.

The attack began just before midnight when 10 gunmen wearing military uniforms shot their way into the airport’s old terminal used mainly for charter and executive flights.

The Pakistani Taliban, an alliance of insurgent groups fighting to topple the government and set up a Sharia state, claimed responsibility, saying it was in response to army attacks on their strongholds along the Afghan border.


"It is a message to the Pakistan government that we are still alive to react over the killings of innocent people in bomb attacks on their villages," said Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman.

The attack all but destroys prospects for significant peace talks with the government of Mr Sharif, who came to power last year promising to find a negotiated solution to years of violence.

At the airport, gun battles went on for five hours and television pictures showed fire raging as ambulances ferried casualties away. At least three loud explosions were heard as militants wearing suicide vests blew themselves up.

By dawn today, the army said the airport had been secured but heavy smoke was rising above the building.

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

Pakistan’s paramilitary force said that the attackers were ethnic Uzbeks. Pakistani officials often blame foreign militants holed up in lawless areas on the Afghan border for staging attacks alongside the Pakistani Taliban around the country.

“Three militants blew themselves up and seven were killed by security forces,” Rizwan Akhtar, the regional head of the paramilitary Rangers, said in televised remarks. “The militants appear to be Uzbek.”

Officials said no aircraft had been damaged.

Earlier, officials said all flights had been diverted.

Peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban have failed in recent months, dampening hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement with the insurgency, which continues attacks against government and security targets.

Pakistan’s Taliban are allied with but separate from the Afghan Taliban.

Earlier the chief minister of Sindh province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, had told reporters that in addition to the 10 attackers, 13 other people had died, including 10 members of the Airport Security Forces and a flight engineer with Pakistan International Airlines, the state airline. "They were well trained," he said of the assailants. "Their plan was very well thought out."

Although elite commandos moved quickly to counter the assault, many Pakistanis expressed shock that militants could penetrate such a prominent target so thoroughly and raised questions about why the attack had not been prevented by the military’s powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

The attack began late last night, when the gunmen made it past security checkpoints near the airport’s old terminal, which is mostly used for cargo or private flights for senior government officials and business leaders. Some news reports said the men wore identification saying they were members of the Airport Security Force.

Hurling grenades and unleashing automatic weapons fire, the attackers at least initially moved toward the nearby web of runways as they fought, according to news and witness reports.

News images showed a major fire blazing in the airport complex that filled the night sky with an orange glow and appeared to be near parked jets. But a senior spokesman for the Pakistani military, Maj Gen Asim Bajwa, denied news reports that two planes had caught fire. He also denied reports the gunmen had been trying to hijack an airliner.

Television pictures showed ambulances racing from the airport, which is named after Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ferrying casualties to the hospital.

Although the fighting took place away from the main terminal that is used by commercial airlines, some passengers were stranded on aircraft that had been about to take off when the assault started. Among them was Farooq Sattar, a senior leader with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement political party, which has dominated Karachi politics for almost three decades. Others posted updates on Twitter and other social media.

At one point Syed Saim A Rizvi, a Twitter user who said he was on a flight, reported that commandos from the army’s elite Special Services Groups had taken control of his plane. Moments later, he reported a “huge blast” and heavy firing outside and said there was a “full panic” on the flight.

Two hours later, he said the Pakistani military had safely evacuated all passengers from the plane. A spokeswoman at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi, Seemi Jamali, said that in addition to the dead, at least 16 people had been seriously injured, and all the city's hospitals were on alert.

Karachi, a sprawling city that was long a haven for militant fighters, financiers and sleeper cells, has in recent years become increasingly contested by the Taliban and other militants. Many have moved in from the country’s northwestern tribal regions and have become embroiled in the violent political turf battles that have wracked the city.

The situation is further complicated by political uncertainty. Last week Karachi shut down for three days after British police arrested Altaf Hussain, the leader of the city’s biggest political party who lives in London, on suspicion of money laundering. Hussain was released on Saturday, but remains under investigation.

In a further demonstration of the brittle security situation across Pakistan, at least 23 Shias were reported killed yesterday in a co-ordinated suicide bombing in a remote part of Baluchistan province on the border with Iran. The Associated Press quoted provincial officials as saying the attack had come as the victims were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.

Although the Taliban has frequently been behind attacks on Shas and other religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan, such violence in Baluchistan has more often been waged by other sectarian militias like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Human rights officials have accused Pakistan’s military of aiding or turning a blind eye toward those groups, as they are considered its allies in a long war against Baluch separatists.

The attack on the Karachi international airport was the most audacious militant strike in the city since the co-ordinated attack against the Mehran naval base in May 2011. At least 10 members of the security forces were killed in the attack, which also destroyed two surveillance planes provided to Pakistan by the United States and deeply embarrassed the country's military.

In December 2012, Taliban militants struck the airport in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s northwest, killing seven people. That attack was suspected of being aimed at a military facility inside the airport’s boundaries. Bajwa, the military spokesman, said that Karachi airport should be reopened to regular commercial traffic by this afternoon.

Reuters/New York Times