27 dead as gunmen attack Karachi airport

DEADLY ASSAULT: A policeman with a gun stands on a vehicle as smoke bellows from Jinnah International airport in Karachi.
DEADLY ASSAULT: A policeman with a gun stands on a vehicle as smoke bellows from Jinnah International airport in Karachi.

Militants launched a brazen attack on Karachi's international airport, killing at least 27 people and seizing control of part of the airport in Pakistan's largest city for more than five hours.

The well-coordinated attack Sunday involved 10 assailants who were armed with grenades, rocket launchers and assault weapons, authorities said. Some of them were also said to be wearing suicide vests. They battled Pakistani security forces through the night before all the assailants were slain, officials said.

Several large fires broke out at the airport, but all airline passengers escaped unharmed, according to a Pakistani army spokesman.

But the siege, one of the worst security breaches at a Pakistani airport, is raising serious questions about the country's ability to protect its major transit hubs amid the persistent threat of terrorism.

The attack comes as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country's military have been considering a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency.

"This act of terror is unforgivable," Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan's defence minister, told local television reporters. "The state will give an appropriate response to such cowardly acts of terror. Those who plan and those who execute the terrorist attacks will be defeated."

There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the attack.

Rizwan Akhtar, the director general of paramilitary Rangers, said the attackers apparently were Uzbeks but authorities were still trying to determine their identities and nationalities. 

At least some of the gunmen wore the uniforms of the Airport Security Force that protects the nation’s airports, said an official who briefed journalists near the airport. He said all were strapped with explosives. He said that when a guard one of them, the explosives strapped to his body went off. The official said another attacker also blew up after being shot at by security forces.

It was unclear how such an assault could occur at what is supposed to be a heavily fortified airport. The attack, which began at 11pm (local time) and lasted until dawn, is likely to be another blow to Pakistan's efforts to lure international business to help its struggling economy.

"I would not want to send any nonmilitary, non-law-enforcement personnel into that area at this moment," Terrance Gainer, a security consultant and former chief of the US Capitol Police, said in an interview. He said US security and anti-terrorism officials would undoubtedly be scrutinising the attack to learn how it occurred.

According to preliminary information from Pakistani security officials, the attack began when about five assailants gained access to Jinnah International Airport, apparently shooting their way through a gate near the old terminal. At least five others entered separately; they may have blasted their way through a wall near the cargo area, officials said.

Amjad Shah, a Karachi police official, said at least some of the militants were wearing uniforms used by security forces.

Once inside, the militants began lobbing grenades and took up positions near the runway and in the airport's cargo area. One senior Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security issues, said some of the militants intended to hijack a plane but were unsuccessful.

All arriving flights were quickly diverted from the airport, which serves 6 million passengers annually. Three international flights were scheduled to leave between 11pm and 1 am, going to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; Bangkok; and Dubai. But all passengers at the airport were evacuated safely, according to Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, the spokesman for Pakistan's military and security agencies.

About 90 minutes after the attack began, hundreds of Pakistani army commandos arrived on the scene and began battling the militants.

Hospital officials said that at least 13 people were killed by the assailants — nine airport security personnel, a Pakistan International Airlines employee, a paramilitary Ranger, a police sub-inspector and an official with Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority.

About 5am Monday, Bajwa reported that the siege had ended after all the attackers were killed. Bajwa said that eight of them were shot and that two blew themselves up once cornered.

Earlier in the night, at least some of the militants had initially been searching for the airport's fuel storage facility, according to one security official. For much of the night, Pakistani television news stations aired footage of two-story-high flames shooting over the top of aircraft parked near the runway.

The Dawn News channel aired an interview with an airport employee who said he escaped from a maintenance shed by climbing onto the roof.

Abi Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the aviation authority, said that some planes had been hit by gunfire but that none caught fire.

The Karachi airport was expected to reopen around midday Monday.

Karachi is home to thousands of suspected Pakistani Taliban militants, which has made it once of Pakistan's most violent and volatile cities.

In recent days, security officials had warned of the likelihood of a major terrorist attack in Karachi in response to Pakistani military operations against insurgents in North Waziristan near the Afghan border.

Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen Pakistani soldiers have been killed in attacks near the border. In response, the army has launched airstrikes in the region and has stepped up its shelling of suspected militant strongholds inside Afghan territory. But the army has stopped short of a major ground assault on Taliban strongholds, which some Pakistani officials fear could lead to even more lethal attacks in Pakistani cities.

Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., said in an emailed statement to reporters that the Taliban is most likely to blame for the attack.

But Pakistan is home to more than two dozen militant groups, including Al Qaeda, and Blank cautioned that "the list of potential culprits is long."

In a separate attack Sunday night, at least 20 Shiite pilgrims were killed in the western province of Baluchistan when two suicide bombers struck near the bus they were travelling in, officials said. The attack occurred near Pakistan's border with Iran.

-The Washington Post, with AP