KARACHI (AFP) – Gunmen armed with rockets and explosives stormed a major Pakistani naval air base, triggering gunbattles that killed five military personnel, three weeks after the US killing of Osama bin Laden.
Around 10 people were wounded and towering flames rose over PNS Mehran in the centre of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, where the military and government confirmed that the base was under "terrorist attack".
An AFP reporter saw swarms of soldiers and navy commando reinforcements pile into the base as smoke rose into the night sky. Over a period of several hours, an AFP photographer heard nine blasts and periodic bursts of gunfire.
A spokesman for the Pakistan Navy said fighting was still continuing more than five hours after the attack began at around 10:45 pm (1745 GMT) on Sunday.
"Fighting is still going on. Four navy and one paramilitary personnel were martyred during the exchange of fire," navy spokesman Commander Salman Ali told AFP.
"They have destroyed two P-3c Orion aircraft," he added.
Last June, the United States delivered two P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft to PNS Mehran.
There was no claim of responsibility but Pakistan's military has long been on the frontline of attacks blamed on the Taliban and other Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups that have killed more than 4,350 people in four years.
The Taliban have recently stepped up threats against Western and Pakistani government targets to avenge the killing of bin Laden by US Navy SEALs in the garrison city of Abbottabad near the capital Islamabad on May 2.
Officials estimated that up to 15 militants crept up to the base on three sides, using the cover of night to approach seemingly undetected through neighbouring civilian residential areas and through trees and foliage.
"The attackers first fired rockets," Ali earlier told the ARY television station, denying any staff had been taken hostage but conceding that a long-range Orion aircraft had been destroyed.
"The terrorists also used small bombs and now they are firing with sophisticated weapons. They are inside and still resisting," he added.
Interior minister Rehman Malik Monday told reporters after reaching Karachi that terrorists sneaked into the base from three of its boundaries bordering civilian populated areas.
"A building in the premises is still under their occupation from where they are exchanging fire with our soldiers." he said.
"The situation is being tackled delicately to secure assets, minimise human losses and defeat the terrorists completely," Malik said, adding that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had become a danger to the existence of Pakistan.
"It is not just an attack on a navy establishment, it is an attack on Pakistan," Malik said, warning that those who sympathise with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda should realise the gravity of the situation and "join hands with us to save our country".
Malik said the Taliban had vowed to avenge the death of bin Laden by attacking Pakistan's military and civilian interests.
Pakistan Navy spokesman Salman Ali earlier told private TV channel GEO that the operation was still ongoing.
"There are believed to be 10 to 15 terrorists. We are being extremely cautious for the safety of our assets," he told.
Home ministry official Sharfuddin Memon from the southern province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital, said "more than 10 terrorists" were inside the base and at least 10 people had been wounded.
In October 2009, Taliban militants besieged the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi for two days, killing 22 people and raising serious questions over why it took the military so long to put down the assault.
Karachi, Pakistan's financial capital whose sea port is used by NATO to ship supplies to the estimated 130,000 US-led foreign troops fighting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, has recently seen a spike in attacks on the military.
On April 28, four naval personnel and a passing motorcyclist were killed in a bombing, two days after four others were killed in navy bus bombings.
Last week, a Saudi diplomat was shot dead as he drove to the Saudi consulate in the city of 16 million people, just days after attackers threw grenades at the mission.
Pakistan's seemingly powerful security establishment was left humiliated by the discovery and killing of the Al-Qaeda terror chief in a unilateral American Navy SEAL raid that has rocked relations with wary ally Washington.
In an interview with the BBC broadcast on Sunday, US President Barack Obama said he stood ready to order a similar mission to that which killed bin Laden if another high-value target was discovered in Pakistan, or any other country.On Sunday, thousands of people demonstrated in Karachi to demand an immediate end to US missile strikes in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt on the Afghan border and call for a block on NATO supplies passing through the country and also urging the government to end its cooperation with Washington's "war on terror"