Islamabad: In a brazen pre-dawn assault, heavily-armed Taliban terrorists donning suicide vests on Thursday stormed a key Pakistan Air Force base believed to house nuclear weapons, triggering a fierce gunbattle that left nine attackers and a soldier dead and parts of the complex ablaze.
Despite a state of high alert at the facility, the terrorists, who were wearing military uniforms, sneaked into Kamra airbase in Punjab province, just 40 kms from the capital, under the cover of darkness at about 2 am, breaching at least three barriers as they attempted to target fighters including F-16 and Chinese made JF-17 aircraft.
The audacious attack came just a day after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta expressed fears about Pakistan`s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
The base in the Attock district of Punjab, according to a New York Times report, is believed to be one of the locations where Pakistan`s nuclear stockpiles, estimated to include at least 100 warheads, are stored.
The attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, tried to target Saab-2000 surveillance aircraft, news channels reported.
Eight terrorists were killed inside the base while one "exploded himself outside the perimeter”, where he was hiding, a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) spokesman said.
A soldier was also killed and Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, the commander of the airbase, was hit by a bullet in the shoulder while leading the operation against the attackers that lasted over three hours.
Azam is "safe and stable”, the spokesman said.
An aircraft was damaged when it was hit by a rocket- propelled grenade fired by the attackers, he said.
He did not give details about the aircraft or the extent of the damage."The combing and scanning operation by security officials at PAF base Minhas has been concluded," the spokesman said.
A few improvised explosive devices were found within the airbase and they were being detonated in a controlled environment by explosives experts, he said.
Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with militant spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan saying the group`s suicide bombers carried it out to avenge the death of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
He claimed the attackers had achieved their targets and dealt a "lethal blow" to the security forces.
The explosives were strapped to the body of one of the attackers, who were engaged by two teams of commandos during the three-hour gun battle.
Earlier reports had said two security personnel were killed in the attack, which came just two days after Pakistan Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani renewed the country`s commitment to the war on terrorism.
Amidst speculation about a new campaign against the Taliban in the tribal belt, Kayani said the war on terrorism was Pakistan`s "own war and a just war too”.
The attack was described by experts as a serious security lapse as The Express Tribune newspaper had reported on August 10 that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan could target PAF facilities in Punjab before Eid-ul-Fitr.
Citing intelligence reports, the daily reported that militants could carry out attacks on the 27th or 28th day of the Islamic month of Ramzan or August 16 and 17.
The attack was also the latest in a string of audacious assaults by the Taliban on Pakistani military installations.
In the past, Taliban had attacked the Army`s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and a key naval airbase in Karachi.
Several Western media reports in the past had said that nuclear weapons are based at the Kamra complex, which is home to an airbase and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles JF-17 combat jets and drones. However, unnamed security officials told the Pakistani media that reports of a threat to the nuclear weapons were "concocted and baseless”.
Defence Minister Naveed Qamar said the attackers were wearing suicide vests and carrying heavy weapons, which indicated that they had come "with the objective of a do or die battle”. However, the terrorists were eliminated with "minimum losses”, he said.
Shortly after the attack began, Geo News channel quoted its sources as saying that the attackers could have had help from elements within the airbase.
The terrorists reportedly entered the airbase from Pind Suleman Makhan, a village adjoining the PAF facility.
As troops conducted a search operation within the airbase, residents of nearby areas were told to remain in their homes. Large contingents of police and army cordoned off the area.
The PAF sought help from the Army, and troops from an elite anti-terrorism commando unit in the garrison city of Rawalpindi were dispatched to Kamra.
Witnesses told the media they had heard intense firing and several explosions from within the airbase.
The Kamra complex and its personnel have been targeted by terrorists several times in the past.
On October 23, 2009, seven persons were killed when a suicide bomber struck a check post outside the airbase.
Nine persons were injured when another suicide bomber targeted a military school bus outside the Kamra airbase in December 2007.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf condemned today`s terror attack and expressed the government`s resolve not to be deterred by such dastardly acts.
Zardari said the government is "determined to eliminate terrorism and stood firm on this stance”.
The Premier praised the gallantry of the armed forces in carrying out an operation to clear the airbase. "This speaks volumes of the high preparedness and rapid response of the Pakistan Air Force," he said.