Karachi airport attack: Death toll rises to 21, 7 still missing
KARACHI (Dunya News/Agencies) – At least twenty-one people were killed as Pakistan s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport armed with rocket launchers and suicide vests, leaving a nascent peace process in tatters.
As many as seven cargo workers are still missing after the attack. Four of them are believed to be cargo assistants while the other three are believed to be loaders.
Relatives of those stuck in the cold storage are protesting at the airport, demanding their immediate rescue.
Meanwhile, one dead body has been found in the cold storage at the cargo area of a private company.
Ten militants were also killed, officials said, as Pakistan s biggest city witnessed a return of the kind of spectacular offensive waged before by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.
The attack at Karachi s Jinnah International Airport began just before midnight Sunday. At around dawn, the military said that all 10 attackers had been killed.
Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three blew up their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.
But after authorities initially declared the airport cleared around dawn, an AFP reporter witnessed fresh gunfire break out inside the airport -- where explosions and fires had erupted during the night -- prompting security forces to relaunch the operation.
"The attack is over and we have cleared the area of all militants," a spokesman for the paramilitary Rangers, Sibtain Rizvi, told reporters later after nearly 12 hours of fighting in all.
The bodies of the 18 victims of the Taliban assault -- including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) -- were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.
After the siege, some 50 Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and PIA employees who had been trapped inside the building all night were seen leaving. PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif s office issued a statement "commending the bravery" of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- who is battling his own Taliban insurgency -- condemned the attack in a statement.
The airport remained on high alert late Monday with military patrolling the area as engineers carry out inspections on planes before outbound flights resume, a CAA official said.
- Latest revenge -
The TTP said the brazen attack was its latest revenge for its late leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in November.
TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the Pakistani government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
A statement later issued by the group said the targets were selected "to have minimum public loss and maximum loss of government personnel", implying the TTP had not planned to attack any planes on the airport tarmac.
Talks to end the TTP s bloody seven-year insurgency in Pakistan have been underway since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted and more than 300 people have been killed in militant strikes since then.
The assault will raise fresh concerns about Pakistan s shaky security situation, and questions about how militants were able to penetrate the airport, which serves one of the world s biggest cities.
- Sleeper cells -
Pakistan s military has carried out a series of airstrikes in the TTP s base in North Waziristan in recent weeks, killing dozens of people but holding back from a full-blown ground offensive.
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said the strikes had not hindered the TTP s ability to carry out massive attacks thanks to its penetration of major cities, particularly Karachi, through sleeper cells.
"This is clearly part of a campaign aimed at hurting Pakistan s strategic and economic interests. It sends a clear message to foreigners also: don t come to this country," he said.
A senior intelligence official added that the city was an emerging base for the Taliban where they are able to both plan and raise funds for attacks.
"The Karachi based militants have been told to not carry smaller terrorism activity but only take up bigger terrorism acts which could create much hype," he said on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban makes use of allied groups like the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to carry out such attacks, he added.
Officials said the gunmen entered from two sides of the airport at around 11:00 pm on Sunday -- the terminal used for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and an engineering section close to an old terminal.
An AFP reporter witnessed three huge blasts as suicide bombers detonated their explosives.
Smoke was seen billowing from the airport as fires raged close to planes parked on the runway, while militants clashed with the airport s security force who were backed by police, paramilitary squads and elite commandos.
In 2011, Taliban gunmen attacked the Mehran naval base, which lies close to the Karachi airport, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour siege.
The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.