KARACHI (Reuters) - Gunmen attacked Pakistan's naval aviation base on Sunday, starting fires, setting off explosions and fighting pitched gunbattles inside one of the country's most heavily guarded military installations.
Officials said at least four people had been killed in the attack on PNS Mehran in the southern city of Karachi.
Between 15 to 20 gunmen were inside and had attacked hangars housing aircraft, officials said. Witnesses said they could hear gunshots and see smoke rising from the base.
"They were equipped with sophisticated weapons," navy spokesman Commodore Irfan ul-Haq told Reuters.
Another spokesman said that one P-3C Orion, a maritime partrol aircraft, had been destroyed. "The attackers are still inside and intermittent firing is continuing."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 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." The Karachi attack evoked memories of an assault on Pakistan's army headquarters in the town of Rawalpindi in 2009, and revived concerns that even the most well-guarded installations in the country remain vulnerable to militants.
Taliban militants, who have vowed to avenge the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces, have carried out several attacks since his death on May 2.
Officials said the gunmen had attacked three hangars housing aircraft. Nine explosions were reported from the base, with jet fuel tanks possibly catching fire and exploding. Almost three hours after the start of the attack, gunbattles between presumed militants and commandos continued.
A least a dozen ambulances were parked outside the base, waiting to take wounded to hospital. Pakistani military and paramilitary reinforcements were pouring in, with four vehicles carrying about 10 troops each moving into the base.
An intelligence official said four people had been killed and five wounded in the Karachi raid.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the "terrorist" attack. "Such a cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism," Gilani said in statement.
Pakistan has faced a wave of bombings and gun assaults over the last few years, some of them claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.
Others have been blamed on al Qaeda-linked militant groups once nurtured by the Pakistani military which have since slipped out of control.
The discovery that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistan Military Academy, has also revived suspicions that militants may be receiving help from some people within the security establishment.
Pakistan and the United States say the senior leadership in the country did not know bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
On April 28, suspected militants detonated a roadside bomb in Karachi, killing four members of the navy, the third attack on the navy in a week.
The attack came two days after two bombs hit buses carrying navy personnel, killing four people and wounding 56. Taliban insurgents took responsibility for the twin attacks.
(Reporting by Zeeshan Haider, Kamran Haider and Imtiaz Shah; Writing by Myra MacDonald and Chris Allbritton; editing by Ralph Boulton)
For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here