Taliban militants stormed an air force base Friday in Pakistan’s troubled north-west, setting off an hours-long gun battle that left 43 people dead and bolstered fears of rebel capacity to retaliate despite army operations.
Militants wearing uniforms of the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary force attacked Badaber air base in the early morning in the suburbs of Peshawar city, army spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa said.
“The security forces surrounded them within a radius of 50 meters and killed 13 attackers,” Bajwa said.
The attackers entered the air base from two points and divided into groups.
One of the groups targeted a mosque inside the base, killing 16 people at morning prayer. Most of those killed were air force personnel.
Another group stormed a nearby barrack and killed seven people.
A young army captain and two soldiers were killed in the gun battle, which lasted several hours.
“Those killed on our side included 23 air force personnel, three army soldiers and four civilians,” Bajwa said.
Twenty-nine people were wounded, including two soldiers, he said.
Bajwa alleged that the militants used neighbouring Afghanistan as their base for the attack and came from across the border. He did not make any direct accusations toward the Kabul government.
“The militants came from Afghanistan, where the attack was planned. The attackers were controlled from Afghanistan and were in touch with the handlers,” he said.
The militants were armed with rocket-launchers, hand grenades and other weapons, Bajwa said, noting that they arrived in a vehicle that dropped them at the gate of the base.
Taliban rebels declared responsibility for the attack, claiming to have killed 50 members of the security forces. Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khurasani said women and children were given safe exit.
The United States condemned the attack.
“The fact that this attack was apparently directed against people who are worshipping at a mosque – and specifically targeting the families of Pakistani military – is particularly reprehensible,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
“Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists. The United States stands in solidarity with the people of Pakistan and all who fight terrorism.”
Peshawar city Police Chief Mubarik Zeb told media that the militants may have launched the attack from the adjacent Khyber tribal region.
It was the first major attack on a security force compound since the Taliban stormed an army-run school in December in Peshawar, killing about 150 people including 136 students.
The attack calls into doubt claims by the civilian government and the army of having “broken the back of militants” in Pakistan and leaves questions about gains made in military offensives launched in June 2014 in the tribal regions to eliminate militants.
The army says more than 3,000 militants have been killed in the military drive.