Militants launched a brazen assault on one of Peshawar’s most tightly guarded installations late Saturday, killing four people, wounding dozens more and forcing the city to go in lockdown.
The attack on Bacha Khan International Airport, which is attached to Peshawar Air Force (PAF) base, was marked by a prolonged exchange of gunfire between militants and army troops.
The militants allegedly planned to enter the airport with suicide vests and an explosives laden vehicle in two separate groups. Five militants were felled on the spot, according to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), while a search operation continued late into the night for any possible auxiliary elements.
However, an earlier statement by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) said that four terrorists have been killed and one injured. “Four suicide jackets have been defused... a Joint Operation consisting of all security agencies is in progress to clear the area,” it said in a written statement.
The search and clearance operation continued late into the night on Saturday. According to a statement by ISPR, five terrorist bodies lying outside the boundary wall of the airport would be cleared with the help of a bomb disposal squad.
Meanwhile, a spokesman of PAF said rocket fire had damaged the outer wall of the airport, but no terrorist had been able to penetrate inside and that security forces were in full control of the situation. The spokesperson also confirmed that PAF assets were safe and secure within the air base.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain has a slightly different recap of events.
“Four attackers were involved. One of the attackers was wearing a suicide vest and was driving a car. He rammed his car into the outer wall of the airport (compound),” he said.
“Another attacker wearing a suicide vest blew himself up prematurely, killing three of them (the attackers),” he added.
“Rocket launchers were also fired. The attackers failed to reach the target. The dead bodies of the four terrorists are in police custody. Both Peshawar airport and the attached air base are safe,” he said.
There was yet another version from the police.
CCPO Imtiaz Altaf told The Express Tribune that police had killed four militants who were in a vehicle and were trying to breach the airport from the opposite side of town.
“There were four men in the vehicle armed with AK-47 rifles and RPG-7s and four suicide vests. Our men fired at them and as a result the vehicle exploded. We diffused one suicide jacket,” he added.
Volleys of gunfire erupted around the airport after the initial attack and the military sealed off the area to launch a search operation. Television footage showed a vehicle with a smashed windscreen, another damaged car, bushes on fire and what appeared to be a large breach in a wall.
Four large explosions were heard in the University Town area, where militants had taken positions on a rooftop near Old Bara Road. The electricity supply in the area also collapsed as police worked to cordon off the area.
SSP Imran Shahid told The Express Tribune that they were in the middle of an operation as police commandoes had been called in to surround militants who were firing at police.
Intermittent firing was heard in University Town till the filing of this report, with no official confirmation about the status of the operation.
“The building is surrounded and SSP operation Imran Shahid himself is supervising the operation; but till the completion it is hard to jump to conclusions,” said a police official requesting anonymity.
TTP claims responsibility
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed responsibility for the attack, saying his group had carried out the offensive against “infidels and their secular friends.”
Medical officials said four people were killed and more than 46 wounded.
Farhad Khan, a spokesman for Khyber Teaching Hospital near the airport, said four people died and that around 50 wounded people had been brought in after the attack. Doctor Umar Ayub confirmed the death toll.
“An emergency has been declared in the hospital and all the surgeons have been called,” said Umar Ayub, chief executive of the Khyber Teaching Hospital Peshawar. “All of them suffered bullet injuries and some of the injured are in critical condition.”
Pervez George, spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), confirmed that the airport had been closed and flights cancelled, but said there had been no damage to the airport building or terminals.
“If needed, we will divert incoming flights to Islamabad and Lahore,” George said.
“The airport is closed and the lights have been turned off,” he added.
The spokesperson told The Express Tribune that all passengers at the airport were safe, adding that that the Airport Security Force (ASF) had cordoned off the area.
(Additional input from AFP)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2012.