Taliban assault on Karachi airport may torpedo Pakistan PM's peace overtures

Pakistani officials repelled a bloody assault on Karachi's international airport that left at least 28 dead. The Taliban have claimed responsibility and said it was revenge for a US drone strike. 

Shakil Adil/AP
Smoke rises above the Jinnah International Airport where security forces continue to battle militants Monday, June 9, 2014, in Karachi, Pakistan. Gunmen disguised as police guards attacked a terminal with machine guns and a rocket launcher during a five-hour siege that killed at least 18 people as explosions echoed into the night, while security forces retaliated and killed all the attackers, officials said Monday.

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Taliban militants stormed Pakistan’s largest airport Sunday, exchanging fire with security forces in a brazen assault that stretched from late evening to early dawn and left at least 28 people dead, including militants. 

The attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi cast doubt on the security of Pakistan’s critical infrastructure and on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s promise to end attacks against civilians and the military by negotiating with Taliban insurgents. The Pakistan Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for a suspected US drone strike last year that killed the group's leader. 

“The federal government is not mentally, psychologically, and ideologically prepared to take action against the militants,” political and defense analyst Hasan Askari told the Pakistan affiliate of Newsweek after the attack. “If the government still insists on dialogue with the militants, then they will run into difficulties with the military,” he said.

The assault on Karachi’s airport – the gateway to a city of 20 million that is an economic hub – will likely “increase pressure for the Army to launch an operation against the TTP’s stronghold in North Waziristan,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Talks with the TPP broke down after a cease-fire expired in April, and while the Army has since carried out airstrikes against militants near the Afghan border, the government has not ruled out further talks.

The attack began late Sunday evening when militants, reportedly dressed in airport security uniforms, stormed Karachi old airport terminal, which is used for cargo and VIP flights.

Witnesses report gun battles raging between militants and security forces. The attackers entered, “hurling grenades and unleashing automatic weapons fire,” according to The New York Times. They then moved toward the runways that serve the main terminal. 

News images showed a major fire blazing in the airport complex that filled the night sky with an orange glow and appeared to be near parked jets. But a senior spokesman for the Pakistani military, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, denied news media reports that two planes had caught fire. He also denied reports that the gunmen had been trying to hijack an airliner.

All flights to Karachi were diverted to other airports. Television pictures showed ambulances racing from the airport, which is named after Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ferrying casualties to the hospital.

Some passengers were on the tarmac in planes ready for takeoff when the fighting erupted. Security forces moved the passengers to safety. Western airlines do not fly into the Karachi airport due to security concerns. International carriers that do fly there include Emirates, Thai Airways, and Turkish Airlines.

No passengers are reported among the dead. Eighteen airport employees, including security employees, and 10 militants – including three who detonated their own suicide bomb vests and seven who were shot – were killed, the Journal reports.

The regional head of the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, said on television that some of the fighters “appear to be Uzbek,” Reuters reports. Pakistani officials in the past have blamed foreign militants for assisting the TTP. 

The Army declared the airport secure by sunrise Monday. The Karachi-based Express News reported that flights to Lahore and Dubai were ready for departure at 2:35 p.m. local time and that incoming flights were being cleared to land. 

The incident could undercut Mr. Sharif’s push to attract more foreign investors attracted by Pakistan's low costs, large English-speaking workforce, and the profitability of multinationals that operate there despite the violence and insecurity in cities like Karachi. Government officials complain that foreign businesses will only send representatives to meet in Dubai or Singapore instead of Karachi, a pattern that the airport attack will likely reinforce.

“What will become of this country! The few airlines that do come to Karachi will also potentially stop after this! Horrifying even to think about this,” write a user going by the name Ahmed on the comments of the Express Tribune’s live updates.

The attack also points to the number of Taliban moving into the city, the Times reports:

Karachi, a city that was long a haven for militant fighters, financiers and sleeper cells, has in recent years become increasingly contested by the Taliban and other militants. Many have moved in from the country’s northwestern tribal regions and have become embroiled in the violent political turf battles that have racked the city.

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