PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Taliban suicide squad staged an audacious car bomb, rocket and gun attack on the airport in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Saturday and Pakistani security officials said at least nine people, including five attackers, were killed.
The night raid was the biggest assault on a high-profile military facility since gunmen stormed an air base in the eastern province of Punjab in August and underscored the resilience and reach of Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency.
“No terrorist has been able to penetrate inside (the air field),” Group Captain Tariq Mahmood, a spokesman for the Pakistan Air Force, said in a statement. “Security forces were fully alert and are in control of the situation.”
A squad of attackers wearing suicide-vests began the attack by ramming an explosives-laden vehicle into a boundary wall before trading fire with security forces for more than 30 minutes. Three rockets slammed into a nearby residential area.
Health and police officials said at least four civilians had been killed and 45 wounded in the flurry of blasts and gunshots.
Authorities sealed off access to the airport during the attack and suspended flights, leaving passengers and staff facing tense minutes waiting to see whether the militants would succeed in fighting their way into the complex.
Pakistan’s army rushed reinforcements to the aid of guards battling the attackers, all five of whom were killed, security sources said.
“We have repulsed the attack on the airport, everything is now under control,” said a military official.
The militants seemed to have had less success than a similar suicide squad who managed to break into the Minhas air base at Kamra in central Punjab in August by scaling a wall topped with barbed wire then battling security forces for hours.
The gritty streets of Peshawar, the gateway to Pakistan’s tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan, have often been shaken by bomb attacks and shootings, but residents said this was the first significant raid on the heavily guarded airport.
The airfield complex serves both commercial flights and military aircraft, including helicopter gunships and warplanes used to strafe and bomb Taliban targets in the tribal areas.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said the movement had sent 10 suicide bombers to attack the airport, double the number of attackers reported by security forces.
“Our target was the Pakistani Air Force base, not the Peshawar airport,” Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The Pakistani Taliban has repeatedly sent small teams of gunmen on suicide missions to attack military installations to undermine confidence in the army.
The heavily guarded airport complex lies near a sprawling complex of barracks and military facilities and the University Town residential neighborhood, where the rockets hit.
“University Town feels like a war zone. Heavy firing is going on,” said resident Akbar Khan, while the attack was still in progress.
Medical staff scrambled to treat wounded civilians, and warned the death toll could rise.
“An emergency has been declared in the hospital and all the surgeons have been called,” said Umar Ayub, chief executive of the Khyber Teaching Hospital Peshawar. “All of them suffered bullet injuries and some of the injured are in critical condition.”
Pakistan’s military, which has received billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, has staged several offensives against Taliban strongholds in the tribal belt, but the movement has continued to harry its forces.
Last year, six Taliban gunmen attacked a naval facility in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. At least 10 military personnel were killed.
Reporting By Jibran Ahmad; Editing by Stephen Powell