Extremists invaded Pakistani base with precision
The team of Islamist extremists knew exactly where the naval base's weak spot was.
Los Angeles Times
ISLAMABAD — The team of Islamist extremists knew exactly where the naval base's weak spot was.
Dressed in black and armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, they crept up to the back wall of Mehran Naval Station in Karachi, keeping clear of security cameras. Then, with just a pair of ladders, they clambered over the wall, cutting through barbed wire at the top, to launch a 17-hour siege that would renew questions about the Pakistani military's ability to defend sensitive installations, including its nuclear arsenal.
The team destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime surveillance aircraft at the base and engaged security forces for hours. It was not until late Monday afternoon that Pakistani forces regained full control of the base.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 10 Pakistani security personnel were killed, and another 15 injured. Four fighters died and another two were believed to have escaped, he said.
The Pakistani Taliban, the country's homegrown insurgency with ties to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was meant to avenge the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in the military city of Abbottabad.
It was the most devastating attack on a Pakistani military installation since October 2009, when extremists stormed the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and took hostages, setting off a 22-hour standoff that ended in the deaths of 23 people, including nine fighters.
The attacks have raised serious questions within Pakistani society about the military's ability to defend not just civilians but its own forces from Islamist extremists. Even before Sunday, the public's confidence in the military had been shaken by the ease with which U.S. military helicopters were able to slip deep into Pakistani territory undetected in the raid on bin Laden's compound.
Moreover, the new attack is likely to raise fears among leaders in Washington and Europe about Pakistan's ability to secure its nuclear weapons.
"I'm sure there will be concerns around the world about this, there's no doubt about it," said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. "I think Pakistan will have to make certain that anything like this cannot be repeated from the standpoint of nuclear installations."
Masood called the siege in Karachi "a very strong indictment of Pakistan and its security forces, and their ability to defend themselves. It will have a very demoralizing effect on the people, because if the security forces are unable to secure themselves and defend themselves, what expectations can the people have that the security forces will be able to defend the population?"
In Washington, retired Army lieutenant general David Barno agreed that "this comes at a tough time for the Pakistani military. Not only was the U.S. able to infiltrate Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden under their noses, now militants attack a Pakistani base. This has a shock value."
Barno, who led the military command in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and now is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said the U.S. military is increasingly concerned at the apparent infiltration of extremist sympathizers inside Pakistan's military and intelligence services.
The siege at the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and its financial capital, began around 10:30 p.m. Sunday. I Malik said the fighters avoided the base's heavily fortified front gate and approached from behind, near the Shah Faisal Colony, a low-income neighborhood where Islamist extremists have been arrested in the past.
They crossed a small stream behind the base before climbing up one of the ladders they had brought with them. Malik said the rebels apparently knew about a gap in the coverage of two security cameras and chose that location to get inside. They placed a second ladder on the inside of the wall, climbed down, and darted toward the cover of the two large surveillance aircraft.
"They used very tactfully, intelligently, the place where there's a gap where both cameras could not see," Malik said.
Once inside the base, they blew up one of two P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft given to the Pakistani Navy by the United States in June 2010. The explosion of that plane's fuel tank destroyed the second surveillance plane nearby. The aircraft were used for maritime patrol and were equipped with equipment to detect submarines.
Seventeen foreigners — six American and 11 Chinese workers — at the base when the siege began were unhurt. U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez said the six Americans were privately employed contractors providing technical support for the surveillance aircraft.
Of the 10 Pakistani security personnel killed, three were Navy commandos and one was a Navy lieutenant who led a team of commandos to confront the extremists once they had reached the surveillance aircraft, Malik said.
Three of the fighters were shot to death by Pakistani security forces. The fourth went inside an office building at the base and detonated the bomb vest he was wearing. Malik said security forces were checking to see if he had booby-trapped the rest of the building with explosives.
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