Pak commandos regain control of Mehran air-base

Karachi: Pakistani commandos on Monday regained control of a key military airbase here that was stormed by Taliban fighters after 16 hours of gun battles that killed 10 security personnel and destroyed two US-made surveillance planes.

Four militants were also killed. They were a part of the group of heavily armed terrorists who made the brazen attack on PNS Mehran, the naval air station within Faisal airbase, at about 10.40 pm last night.

Within minutes of entering the base, the attackers lobbed grenades and fired rockets that destroyed two US-made P3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft.

The attackers then exchanged heavy fire with security forces within the airbase before holing up in several buildings.

Scores of elite naval and army commandos were brought in to flush out the terrorists and the operation to clear the airbase ended this afternoon.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that 10 security personnel, including a navy lieutenant and three naval commandos, were killed and 15 others injured.

The attack was carried out by about six terrorists, four of whom had died while two got away, he said.

At least one of the dead terrorists was a suicide bomber who blew himself up, Malik said.

The minister initially said 15 security personnel had died in the attack but subsequently revised the figure.

Malik said 17 foreigners who were on the airbase, including 11 Chinese and six Americans, were removed to safety by security forces.

Naval chief Admiral Noman Bashir told reporters the attackers were trained and experienced fighters who were crack marksmen. They caused considerable damage to the airbase by firing rockets, he said.

"Those who want to destabilise Pakistan, look at their goals and targets. They are destroying those assets bought with national funds which would be needed by the military in the event of hostilities," Malik said.

As more details emerged of the attack, it appeared it was carried out by a much small group of terrorists than was earlier reported.

A naval spokesman had earlier said that up to 15 terrorists could be involved in the attack.

Officials said the attackers sneaked up to the perimeter of the airbase by moving along the Malir river.

They cut through barbed wire barricades and entered in three groups, Malik said.

A photograph of one of the dead terrorists provided to the media by Malik showed a young man wearing dark blue or grey clothes and sneakers.

Malik said the attackers were aged between 22 and 25 but evaded questions about their ethnicity.

"They were fair and sharp featured," he said.

A probe will be conducted by the police, paramilitary Pakistan Rangers and intelligence agencies to establish the identity of the attackers and their facilitators, he said.

Hundreds of security personnel, including Pakistan Rangers and elite naval and army commandos, moved into the airbase to flush out the terrorists late last night.

Authorities used helicopters to mount surveillance over the airbase after dawn.

Heavy exchanges of fire between the attackers and terrorists continued till about 11.30 pm last night, and were followed by intermittent firing and over 20 blasts.

The terrorists targeted several hangars where the navy`s P3C Orion surveillance aircraft were parked.

Dramatic footage on television overnight showed several explosions and tracer bullets zipping through the air.

Flames and thick smoke billowed into the sky from an object burning near a P3C Orion.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which came 20 days after al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid on the garrison city of Abbottabad.

Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the media that his group had sent militants to "take revenge" for the killing of bin Laden.

The Taliban and al-Qaida had vowed to avenge bin Laden`s killing by carrying out attacks in Pakistan and the US.

The attack will add to the embarrassment of the Pakistani military, which has faced tremendous criticism for failing to detect bin Laden?s presence in Abbottabad.

The high-security area where the attack occurred houses the PAF`s Southern Air Command, Air War College and museum as well as PNS Mehran, the main naval air station in Karachi.

Security was tightened across Pakistan following the attack, particularly at military installations and in the federal and provincial capitals.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani strongly condemned the terrorist attack.

Gilani said such "cowardly acts of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism."

The Prime Minister convened a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet on Wednesday to assess national security in the "aftermath of present challenges posed by acts of terrorism," an official statement said.