By Zia Ur Rehman and Salman Masood

June 10, 2014


Karachi, Pakistan. In a ferocious terrorist assault that stretched into Monday morning. suspected Islamist militants infiltrated Pakistan’s largest international airport in Karachi, waging an extended firefight against security forces that resulted in 23 deaths and shook  the country’s already fragile sense of security.

Explosions and gunfire rang out across the airport through the night as police and security forces battled with attackers, and passengers waited anxiously in a nearby terminal and in airplanes stranded on the tarmac. Just before 5 a.m., after five hours of siege, the military reported that the last of 10 attackers had been killed.

Gunmen waged an extended gunfire with security forces at Pakistan’s largest international airport before being killed. Athar Hussain/Reuters

The chief minister of Sindh Province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, told reporters that in addition to the 10 attackers, 13 other people had died, including 10 members of the Airport Security Forces and a flight engineer with Pakistan International Airlines, the state airline. “They were well trained,” he said of the assailants. “Their plan was very well thought out.”

There was no claim of responsibility for the assault, which was the most ambitious of its kind in Pakistan since Islamist militants attacked a navy air base in central Karachi in 2011. Initial suspicions fell on the Pakistani Taliban and related Islamist groups that have become increasingly strong in the past two years in the city, a sprawling megalopolis of 20 million people and a major commercial hub.

Although elite commandos moved quickly to counter the assault, many Pakistanis expressed shock that militants could penetrate such a prominent target so thoroughly and raised questions about why the attack had not been prevented by the military’s powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

The attack began late Sunday night, when the gunmen made it past security checkpoints near the airport’s old terminal, which is mostly used for cargo or private flights for senior government officials and business leaders. Some news reports said the men wore identification saying they were members of the Airport Security Force.

Hurling grenades and unleashing automatic weapons fire, the attackers at least initially moved toward the nearby web of runways as they fought, according to news and witness reports.

News images showed a major fire blazing in the airport complex that filled the night sky with an orange glow and appeared to be near parked jets. But a senior spokesman for the Pakistani military, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, denied news media reports that two planes had caught fire. He also denied reports that the gunmen had been trying to hijack an airliner.

All flights to Karachi were diverted to other airports. Television pictures showed ambulances racing from the airport, which is named after Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ferrying casualties to the hospital.

Some of the attackers were wearing suicide vests, and at least one blew himself up when police officers approached, senior police officials told reporters at the scene.

Although the fighting took place away from the main terminal that is used by commercial airlines, some passengers were stranded on airplanes that had been about to take off when the assault started. Among them was Farooq Sattar, a senior leader with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement political party, which has dominated Karachi politics for almost three decades. Others posted updates on Twitter and other social media.

At one point, Syed Saim A. Rizvi, a Twitter user who said he was on a flight, reported that commandos from the army’s elite Special Services Group had taken control of his plane. Moments later, he reported a “huge blast” and heavy firing outside and said there was a “full panic” on the flight.

Two hours later, he said that the Pakistani military had safely evacuated all passengers from the plane.

A spokeswoman at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi, Dr. Seemi Jamali, said that in addition to the dead, at least 16 people had been seriously injured, and all the city’s hospitals were on alert.

A senior officer with the Rangers, a paramilitary force that helps secure the airport, told reporters that the attackers had been carrying Indian weapons, in an apparent suggestion of Indian involvement that was greeted with widespread derision on social media.

If past assaults are a guide, the most likely culprits are the Pakistani Taliban or allied sectarian and militant groups that have killed thousands of civilians and security forces in the past seven years.

A tentative peace process with the Taliban, begun by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in February, has disintegrated in recent weeks. The militant group has split into at least two opposed factions, in part over disagreements about whether to negotiate with the government. The Pakistani Army renewed a campaign of airstrikes against the militants in North Waziristan two weeks ago, and factions of the Taliban were believed to be behind a deadly attack on a high-security military complex near Rawalpindi last week.

Karachi, a city that was long a haven for militant fighters, financiers and sleeper cells, has in recent years become increasingly contested by the Taliban and other militants. Many have moved in from the country’s northwestern tribal regions and have become embroiled in the violent political turf battles that have racked the city.

The situation is further complicated by political uncertainty. Last week Karachi was shut down for three days after British police arrested Altaf Hussain, the leader of the city’s biggest political party who lives in London, on suspicion of money laundering. Mr. Hussain was released on Saturday but remains under investigation.

In a further demonstration of the brittle security situation across Pakistan, at least 23 Shiites were reported killed on Sunday in a coordinated suicide bombing in a remote part of Baluchistan Province, on the border with Iran. The Associated Press quoted provincial officials as saying that the Shiites were attacked while returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.

Although the Taliban have frequently been behind attacks on Shiites and other religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan, such violence in Baluchistan has more often been waged by other sectarian militias like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Human rights officials have accused Pakistan’s military of aiding or turning a blind eye toward those groups, as they are considered its allies in a long war against Baluch separatists.

The attack on the Karachi airport on Sunday was the most audacious militant strike in the city since the coordinated attack against the Mehran naval base in May 2011. At least 10 members of the security forces were killed in the attack, which also destroyed two surveillance planes provided to Pakistan by the United States and deeply embarrassed the country’s military.

In December 2012, Taliban militants struck the airport in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan’s northwest, killing seven people. That attack was suspected of being aimed at a military facility inside the airport’s boundaries.

General Bajwa, the military spokesman, said that the Karachi airport should be reopened to regular commercial traffic by Monday afternoon.