At least 42 people, among them 13 terrorists, were killed on Friday when heavily armed Pakistani Taliban guerrillas stormed an air base near Peshawar and a mosque inside it during morning prayers.
The audacious attack took place less than a year after over 150 people, mostly children, were killed in a terrorist attack at an army-run public school in this provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Major General Asim Bajwa, the Inter-Services Public Relations director general, claimed the attack was planned and controlled from Afghanistan.
He said the terrorists dressed in constabulary uniforms, wearing explosives-laden jackets and armed with hand-propelled grenades, mortars, and AK-47 rifles entered the Badaber air base from two points and then quickly split into three groups, with two moving to a residential area.
The third group approached the mosque and sprayed worshippers with bullets during the morning ‘Fajar’ prayers, killing at least 16 people. However, it was not clear how many among the killed were civilians and how many were military personnel.
“The terrorists then split into two groups, with one group heading towards the administrative area of the base and the other group heading towards technical area,” Bajwa added.
“Captain Asfandyar embraced shahadat while fighting valiantly and leading his troops from the front,” Bajwa said.
The air base — which is essentially a residential complex rather than an operational one — is located on the southern-most tip of Peshawar’s administrative limits.
It is surrounded by tribal territory, which has been the hub of criminal and militant activity until recently.
The attack comes amid claims of success by the military in its 15-month operation in the tribal region, and might well be an attempt by militants to show they can still hit hard chosen targets.
It also exposes holes in Pakistan’s pre-emptive intelligence gathering mechanisms, mainly due to lack of coordination and information sharing among various security agencies.
Gen. Bajwa said 16 people offering prayers at th air base mosque, 10 km south of Peshawar, were shot dead.
He tweeted that 13 terrorists were killed. The Pakistan army too suffered casualties.
The total number of gunmen involved was unclear, but Bajwa said the armed forces were hunting for the remaining attackers.
At least 25 people, including eight soldiers and two army officers, were injured as army commandos and personnel of the Pakistan Air Force and Quick Reaction Force carried out a counter-attack.
A posse of security personnel quickly reached the spot, triggering a heavy exchange of fire. Residents said they heard explosions and gunfire soon after the terror attack was mounted.
Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani in an e-mailed statement claimed responsibility and said a “suicidal unit” had carried out the attack.
“We sent 14 men to attack the base and eight of them entered the base from one side and six from the other side,” the spokesperson’s e-mail was quoted by IANS.
On August 16, 2012, militants attacked the Minhas base of the Pakistan Air Force at Kamra. But recently there has been a lull in the violence. The last deadly attack in the city came in February when three Taliban militants stormed a Shia mosque, killing 21 people.
Following Friday’s attack, army chief General Raheel Sharif reached Peshawar. Air chief Sohail Aman also left for the city, a PAF spokesperson said.
“Army chief visited CMH, met injured army and PAF personnel,” Bajwa said, adding the chief of air staff accompanied him. “Injured in high morale and spirits,” he added.
Condemning the attack, President Mamnoon Hussain said the nation was committed to eliminating terrorism from the country.
“Terrorists cannot undermine our resolve by carrying out coward acts of terrorism,” the president said.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack, saying: “Terrorists will be rooted out from the country.”
The premier said he was being updated on the ongoing operation against terrorists. He said the armed forces of the county have the full support of the entire nation.
Sharif also reached Peshawar and visited the wounded soldiers and civilians in hospital.
Corps commander Lt. Gen. Hidayatur Rehman conducted aerial surveillance of the base from a helicopter.