ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani commandos on Monday regained control of a naval air base in the southern metropolis of Karachi, nearly 17 hours after an audacious attack by armed fighters that the Pakistani Taliban claimed was meant to avenge Osama bin Laden’s death.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the overnight siege, which shook the port city with more than a dozen fiery explosions, was carried out by no more than six attackers carrying rockets, grenades and machine guns. The fighters killed 10 Pakistani security personnel and destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime-surveillance airplanes, he said.
The attack, which dominated Pakistan’s news channels for hours, underscored Islamist insurgents’ ability to penetrate fortified security installations, and several analysts said it was likely they were helped by people inside the base. It dealt another embarrassing blow to a powerful military that has faced harsh domestic criticism over the U.S. operation that killed bin Laden, which exposed the army as vulnerable to incursion by a foreign military and unable to locate the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
The bin Laden raid also raised questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and defense analysts said the Karachi assault renewed those doubts. Even as some government and military officials depicted it as a fluke, not a major security breach, Malik said it showed international allies, including the United States, need to provide more assistance to Pakistan’s security forces. After the bin Laden killing, some U.S. members of Congress have called for cuts in American aid to Pakistan, most of which has gone to the military.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said his cabinet’s defense committee was meeting to review the attack and assess national security.
Malik said the militants — whom he described as dressed in black and resembling “Star Wars characters” — entered from a residential district abutting the base. Using two ladders placed in a spot obscured from security cameras, they scaled the walls and clipped the barbed wire at the top, then headed for the hangar containing American-made P-3C Orion airplanes, he said.
The attackers fired on one plane, and the resulting explosion destroyed it and a second plane, Malik said. Pakistani naval commandos and marines eventually cornered the militants in an office building and killed four of them, he said, adding that two others might have escaped. In contrast, an intelligence official in Karachi said only the four killed had carried out the attack.
The siege was the most brazen attack on a Pakistani security institution since an 18-hour assault on the military’s general headquarters near Islamabad, the capital, in 2009. It was the second major assault on security forces since bin Laden’s death, and the third on the Pakistani naval forces in Karachi in the past month. The Pakistani Taliban, an al-Qaida linked organization that regularly strikes the police and military, had vowed to step up attacks on American and Pakistani targets to avenge bin Laden’s death.