While the Pakistani Taleban have carried out hundreds of bombings and other attacks, raids against military bases are rare. Spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said yesterday’s pre-dawn attack was revenge for the death of Pakistani Taleban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in 2009 and the US commando raid that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden last year.
The air base is only 25 miles north-west of Islamabad and hosts fighter jets, including F-16s, and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems.
The weapons development and the presence of jets that could be used to deploy nuclear bombs have raised suspicions among experts that the base is linked to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. However, no firm evidence has emerged, since the secrecy of the nuclear programme makes independent evaluation difficult. The Pakistani army denies any connection between the base and nuclear arms.
Western experts believe Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is rapidly expanding its arsenal.
“The great danger we’ve always feared is that, you know, if terrorism is not controlled in their country, that those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands,” US defence secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The attack came at around 2am, when Taleban militants opened up with automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Some of them were also wearing explosives strapped to their bodies. At least one of the rockets hit a hangar, pierced its wall and exploded, damaging one of the aircraft inside, said air force spokesman Tariq Mahmood. After the barrage, the attackers scaled the wall surrounding the base and an intense firefight ensued. Security forces, backed by elite commandos, fought the militants for two hours and were finally able to retake the base. By the end of the battle, one soldier and the nine militants were dead. One of the militants blew himself up outside the base perimeter, the air force said.
The head of the base, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, was wounded in the shoulder.
Security forces searching the area after the attack found a “few IEDs,” which they either removed or destroyed. Air Force Base Minhas was named after a pilot, Rashid Minhas, considered as a hero in Pakistan for foiling attempts by his instructor to defect with an air force plane to arch-rival India in 1971. To stop the escape, he disabled the controls of the plane the two were flying, and died in the resulting crash.
Half a dozen Taleban militants attacked a major naval base in the southern port of Karachi in May 2011, killing at least ten people and destroying two US-supplied surveillance aircraft. It took Pakistani commandos 18 hours to retake Naval Station Mehran, and two of the attackers escaped.
In 2009, militants dressed in fatigues attacked army headquarters in Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, and took 30 people hostage.
Three captives and four militants were killed when commandos stormed the HQ 22 hours into the siege.