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Taliban attacks major Pakistani air base, 10 dead

Armed militants stormed a Pakistani air force base on Thursday, sparking clashes that left 10 people dead renewing questions about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. 

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Minhas, 45 miles northwest of Islamabad, is adjacent to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a major air force research and development center. Pakistan manufactures JF-17 fighter planes, jointly developed with China, at the site.

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Suicide bombers launched attacks near the base and the aeronautical complex in 2007 and 2009, but news reports said defenses were not breached.

Holy month

It was not immediately clear how the attackers managed to enter the sprawling base this time. Although the attack took place at about 2 a.m., it is likely many of the soldiers on the base were awake for prayers or breakfast during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Faheemullah Khan, a civilian who lives near the base, said he was at a mosque praying when he heard gunfire and explosions which he thought were military exercises.

"Then we came to a restaurant, which is next to the main entrance to the base, and heard a louder explosion," he said.

"We saw six police vans rush in, and realized something was wrong."

Several squadrons of fighters and surveillance planes are believed to be based at Minhas.

"One body of a suicide bomber strapped with explosives has been found close to the impact area," said an air force statement.

Pakistan's Taliban has staged a number of high-profile attacks over the past few years, including one on army headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009.

Last year, six Taliban gunmen attacked a naval base in Pakistan's biggest city Karachi to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. At least 10 military personnel were killed and 20 wounded in the 16-hour assault.

Those attacks, and the latest one, are embarrassing for Pakistan's military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 65-year history and is seen as the most efficient state institution.

The Taliban is blamed for many of the suicide bombings across Pakistan, a strategic US ally.

Pakistan's military, one of the biggest in the world, has staged several offensives against Taliban strongholds in the unruly tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan.

But the operations have failed to break the back of the Taliban. Major suicide bombings have eased considerably over the past year but that could be due to a tactical shift and not pressure from the military.

(Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar in ISLAMABAD and Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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