KARACHI, Pakistan – Ten gunmen disguised as police guards attacked a terminal at Pakistan’s busiest airport with machine guns and a rocket launcher during a five-hour siege that left 18 people dead as explosions echoed into the night, while security forces retaliated and killed all the attackers, officials said today.
The airport attack came as a separate suicide bombing in the country’s southwest killed 23 Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran, authorities said.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, named after the founder of Pakistan, nor the suicide bombing in Baluchistan province. However, the attacks come as government-led peace talks with the local Taliban faction and other militants have floundered in recent weeks.
The airport attack began late Sunday and ended before dawn today in Karachi, a sprawling port city on Pakistan’s southern coast, although officials said all the passengers had been evacuated. During the course of the attack, heavy gunfire and multiple explosions could be heard coming from the terminal, used for VIP flights and cargo, as militants and security forces battled for control. A major fire rose from the airport, illuminating the night sky in an orange glow as the silhouettes of jets could be seen.
The deadly operation was carried out by 10 militants, said the chief minister of Sindh province, Qaim Ali Shah.
“They were well trained. Their plan was very well thought out,” he told reporters. He said they intended to destroy some of the aircraft and buildings but were not able to.
Rizwan Akhtar, the director general of paramilitary Rangers, told reporters that the airport would be handed over to civilian authorities to resume normal operations later today. He said the attackers apparently were Uzbeks but authorities were still trying to determine their identities and nationalities.
The spokesman for the Pakistani military, Gen. Asim Bajwa, said on Twitter that no aircraft were damaged and that as a precautionary measure, security forces were sweeping the airport before operations would be returned to the Civil Aviation Authority and airport police.
At least some of the gunmen wore the uniforms of the Airport Security Force that protects the nation’s airports, said an official who briefed journalists near the airport.
He said all were strapped with explosives. He said that when a guard one of them, the explosives strapped to his body went off. The official said another attacker also blew up after being shot at by security forces.
The official described himself as being with one of the country’s intelligence agencies but declined to give his name.
After storming into the airport grounds, gunmen took shelter in two sections of the airport, said senior police officer Ghulam Qadir Thebo.
“The blast you heard a little while ago was when our police party went to pick up a body (and) one of the attackers blew himself up,” Thebo said
Authorities seized four machine guns and a rocket launcher, Thebo said.
Eleven of the bodies brought to the hospital were Airport Security Force personnel, one was a member of the paramilitary Rangers, one was from the police, one was an employee of the Civil Aviation Authority and another was from the state-run Pakistan International Airlines.
Authorities diverted incoming flights and suspended all flight operations.