A brazen attack by Pakistani Taliban militants on Minhas Airbase in Punjab province on early Thursday will likely make the country’s military think twice about an offensive it is planning in the restive North Waziristan Agency.
According to reliable sources, at about 2am militants from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) entered the air base in the town of Kamra from a rear wall adjacent to a village. Disguised in PAF uniforms, they then rushed towards aircraft hangars.
A two-hour long firefight ensued between the security forces and the militants. Finally, PAF security crew succeeded in gunning down all nine attackers, with one security official also killed in the skirmish.
The Pakistani Army is preparing to launch a military operation in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), and some analysts have interpreted Thursday’s attack as a warning.
“Just when the Pakistani army was preparing to finally undertake a military operation to crush the intransigent Haqqani network in North Waziristan, it has again come under another brazen attack”, wrote the Khaleej Times.” As was the case in the PNS Mehran attack, there are strong reasons to believe that insiders were involved in this sophisticated assault”.
The TTP has claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesperson Ihsanullah Ihsan describing it as “revenge” for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and former TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud.
“The Kamra base attack is a terrifying sign that the khakhis [the army] might not be able to tackle the blowback triggered by the forthcoming offensive against North Waziristan’s tenacious militants,” added the newspaper.
The incident is not the first attack of its kind. Militants have launched several brazen attacks on army, navy and air force bases in recent years.
On October 10, 1999 militants stormed the General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi, the supreme command and control office of the Pakistan Army. In the attack six Pakistani soldiers, including a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel lost their lives, while four terrorists were killed in the siege.
The recent attack is similar to the assault in May 2011 assault on Mehran Naval Base in Karachi by suspected al-Qaeda militants. During that attack, the Taliban destroyed two US-made 3C Orion maritime surveillance planes and killed 10 Pakistani troops.
According to reliable sources and intelligence reports, TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud in early August allocated 25 million Pakistani rupees (US$264,700) “to carry out attacks on the PAF base [in] Lahore, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau, and the Counter-Terrorism Department offices in the province.”
The intelligence reports further revealed that prominent Taliban commanders, including Qari Yasin of the Qari Aslam Group, were planning attacks similar to the 2011 assault on PNS Mehran.
The air base in Kamra is home to Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets built with Chinese cooperation. It has has come under attack twice before, in 2007 and 2009.
Talking exclusively to Asia Times Online, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed said, “When there were intelligence reports of an expected militant attack like the former attacks on the army, navy and air force bases, then definitely this is negligence and a security lapse. We lack a counter-terrorism strategy and coordination. This leads to such lethal incidents.”
When questioned about the security measures for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals, the chairman of the Senate’s Defence Committee said, “It is irrational to question the insecurity of the Pakistan nuclear weapons arsenal as it is quite safe in Pakistan, even more than the United States’ atomic armaments.”
A Foreign Office spokesman, Moazzam Ali Khan, also said in a weekly briefing on Friday that US concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security were baseless.
“No one need worry about our nuclear assets and we know how to protect them, they are in safe and sound hands,”said Khan.
Pakistan’s Defense Minister, Syed Naveed Qamar, rejected reports that security lapses had led to the attack on the Minhas Air Base.
In a sign of intensifying sectarian tensions, just an hour after the air base attack 22 Shi’ites were gunned down by TTP militants near Mansehra in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
A bus carrying passengers to Gilgit from Rawalpindi was stopped by a gang of a dozen insurgents, with the identity cards of passengers checked to determine who was Shi’ite.
The TTP’s Khyber Agency spokesman, Muhammad Afridi, has claimed the killings and warned of more attacks on Shi’ites in future.