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After 15 hours, Pakistan naval base siege ends

Karachi: An operation to regain control of a Pakistani naval base assaulted by Taliban militants has been completed after almost 15 hours of fighting with up to 20 assailants holed up in a building, a security official said from inside the base.

“The operation is over. The main building has been cleared,” the official said. “For precaution, we are continuing search around for any more terrorists but the main operation is over.”

Taliban militants destroyed two US-supplied planes and killed 12 security officers.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault in the city of Karachi, saying it was part of their revenge for the May 02 American raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The al Qaeda-allied group said the insurgents were under orders to fight until the death.

“They do not want to come out alive, they have gone there to embrace martyrdom,” said spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan.

Between 10 and 15 insurgents armed with grenades, rockets and automatic weapons stormed Naval Station Mehran late Sunday before splitting into smaller groups, setting off explosions and hiding in the sprawling facility.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said earlier that the militants had attacked from the rear of the base.

“We have been able to confine them to one building and an operation is underway either to kill or capture them,” he said.

The raid was one of the most audacious in years of militant violence in Pakistan. The insurgent’s ability to penetrate the high-security facility rattled a military establishment already humiliated by the unilateral American raid on bin Laden, and raised the possibility they had inside help.

It will also likely lead to more questions over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In 2009, Islamist terrorists stormed army headquarters close to the capital, holding hostages for 22 hours. But unlike the attack Sunday in Karachi, the attackers then failed to deeply penetrate the complex.

By Monday afternoon, another Navy spokesman, Salman Ali, said that “apparently there is no more militant resistance”.

At least 11 Navy personnel and one paramilitary ranger were killed, while 14 security forces were wounded, Haq said, adding it was unclear how many militant casualties there were.

The attack resembled the 2008 siege of Mumbai, India, and a number of other similar raids in Pakistan in which heavily armed squads of insurgents go out in teams, occupy a property and fight to the death. It was one of the first such strike in Karachi, the country’s largest city and economic hub.

Haq earlier denied reports the militants had taken hostages and said by Monday morning, they were confined to an office building, trading fire with commandos Navy helicopters were flying over the base, and snipers were seen on a runway control tower.

The unilateral US raid on bin Laden’s compound in the northwest Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad has triggered a strong backlash here against Washington as well as rare domestic criticism of the armed forces for failing to detect or prevent the American operation. Pakistani leaders insist they had no idea the al Qaeda boss had been hiding in Abbottabad.

This is the third major attack the group has claimed since the bin Laden killing, including a car bombing that slightly injured American consulate workers in the northwest city of Peshawar and a twin-suicide attack that killed around 90 Pakistani paramilitary police recruits.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack, saying such a “cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism”.

The raid began with at least three loud explosions, which were heard by people who live around the naval air station.

It was unclear what caused the explosions, but they set off raging fires that could be seen from far in the distance. A reporting team outside the base heard at least six other explosions and sporadic gunfire.

Authorities sent in several dozen navy and police commandos to battle the attackers, who responded with gunfire and grenades, said Salman Ali, another Navy spokesman. At least two P-3C Orions, maritime surveillance aircraft given to Pakistan by the US, were destroyed, he said.

The United States handed over two Orions to the Pakistani navy at a ceremony at the base in June 2010 attended by 250 Pakistani and American officials, according to the website of the US Central Command. It said by late 2012, Pakistan would have eight of the planes.

US embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez said no Americans were on the base at the time of the raid.

Karachi, a city of around 18 million people, has not been spared the violence sweeping the country, despite being in the south far from the northwest where militancy is at its strongest. In April, militants bombed three buses taking Navy employees to work, killing at least nine people.

The Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups have little direct public support, but the Army and the government have struggled to convince the people of the need for armed operations against them. The militants’ identification with Islam, strong anti-American rhetoric and support for insurgents in Afghanistan resonates with some in the country.

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