KARACHI, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Monday morning for an attack on Karachi airport that left at least two dozen dead, as officials said for a second time that they had cleared the area of assailants.
Pakistan’s security forces told AFP they had relaunched a military operation at Karachi airport, as gunfire resumed several hours after they announced the end of a militant siege that left 24 dead. A paramilitary spokesperson later said the airport had been cleared of militants.
An AFP reporter at the scene said shots could be heard again inside the airport — where explosions and fires had erupted during the night — and that dozens of trucks filled with soldiers were moving into the complex.
“We have relaunched the operation and called in additional troops,” said Sibtain Rizvi, spokesman for the Rangers paramilitary force, adding that one police officer had been injured in the new firing.
The initial assault at Jinnah International Airport in Pakistan’s southern port city began late Sunday and raged until dawn, when the military said that all 10 attackers had been killed.
A Taliban spokesperson said the attack was launched in revenge for their late leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in November.
“We carried out the attack on Karachi airport to avenge the death of Hakimullah Mehsud,” Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP, while dismissing the Pakistani government’s recent offer of peace talks as a “tool of war”.
Equipped with suicide vests, grenades and rocket launchers, militants battled security forces in one of the most brazen attacks in years in Pakistan’s biggest city. Among the 14 victims were four airport workers.
After the six-hour siege, military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa had declared in a tweet that the area was “cleared” with “all vital assets intact.”
The assault will raise fresh concerns about Pakistan’s shaky security situation, and questions about how militants were able to penetrate the airport, which serves one of the world’s biggest cities.
Huge suicide blasts
Officials said the gunmen entered from two sides of the airport at around 11:00 pm on Sunday — the terminal used for the hajj pilgrimage, and an engineering section close to an old terminal that is no longer in use.
An AFP reporter witnessed three huge blasts as suicide bombers detonated their explosives.
Smoke was seen billowing from the airport as fires raged close to planes parked on the runway, while militants, some dressed in army uniform, clashed with the airport’s security force who were backed by police, paramilitary squads and elite commandos.
A senior intelligence official said it appeared the militants had aimed to hijack a plane that passengers were boarding at the main terminal, but that when they were repelled they went on the rampage.
“The passenger plane at Jinnah terminal was their target and when they failed to reach there they destroyed two private terminals in frustration,” he told AFP.
After the attack was quelled, a bomb disposal expert in full protective gear was seen walking from the site carrying a suicide vest and a bag full of hand grenades.
‘I saw the terrorists firing’
Broken glass and spent gun magazines littered the engineering section where the first exchange of gunfire took place as smoke from grenade attacks began to die down.
“I heard fierce firing and then saw the terrorists firing at security forces… Thank God I am alive, this is very scary,” said eyewitness Sarmad Hussain, an employee of national carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).
Syed Saim Rizvi, who was on board a plane on the runway, tweeted: “Huge blast!!!! I do not know whats going on outside — heavy firing started again – full panic on board!”
The city’s Jinnah Hospital said that 14 dead bodies had been brought there, including eight airport security personnel, a ranger, a civil aviation official and four PIA staff.
Another 21 people were wounded, spokeswoman Seemi Jamali told AFP.
The latest trouble came with tensions already high over the arrest in Britain of the exiled leader of Pakistan’s MQM party, which dominates politics in Karachi — Pakistan’s economic center and main port.
However, similar raids in the past have been claimed by Taliban militants who rose up against the Pakistani state in 2007 in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
In 2011, Taliban gunmen attacked the Mehran naval base, which lies close to the airport, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour siege.
The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages.
The airport assault will cast attention on the government’s controversial decision to negotiate with the Taliban instead of using greater force.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government began negotiations with the umbrella militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in February, with a ceasefire beginning March 1 but breaking down a month later.
As well as the Taliban threat, Pakistan is facing a rising tide of sectarian bloodshed mainly targeting minority Shiite Muslims.
In a separate attack in southwest Baluchistan province late Sunday, at least 23 people including several Shiite pilgrims were killed in a gun and suicide assault on the restive Pakistan-Iran border.
The pilgrims were targeted as they returned from a visit to holy Muslim sites in Iran and stopped for a meal in the Pakistani town of Taftan.