Taliban attack Pakistan air base

A team of nine Taliban militants have attacked a Pakistani air force base believed linked to the country’s nuclear programme, killing a security official in a fierce gunbattle battle that ended with the insurgents dead and parts of the base in flames.

Hours later in northern Pakistan, gunmen forced 20 Shiite Muslims off buses, lined them up and killed them.

The separate incidents emphasise two daunting challenges the nuclear-armed country faces: a still-potent threat from the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian violence in a Sunni majority country where Shiite Muslims often feel under attack.

While the Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of bombings and other attacks through the country, raids against military bases are somewhat uncommon.

The large air base, only about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Islamabad, hosts a variety of fighter jets, including F-16s, and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems.

Some experts suspect the base could be linked to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal because of the weapons development there and the presence of jets that could be used to deploy the bombs. The army has denied the base has any links.

The safety of the country’s nuclear weapons has been a major concern for the United States. Western experts say Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a rapid expansion of its arsenal.

The militants, some of whom were wearing explosives strapped to their bodies, attacked the base at around 2am with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the air force.

At least one of the rockets hit a hangar, pierced the hangar wall and exploded, damaging one of the aircraft parked inside.

After the rocket barrage, the attackers scaled the wall surrounding the air base and an intense firefight ensued.

Security forces, backed by a team of elite commandos, fought the militants for two hours and were finally able to retake the base, the air force said. By the end of the battle, one soldier was dead and the nine militants were killed, one of them when he blew himself up outside the base perimeter.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the air base attack, saying it was revenge for the death of the group’s leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in 2009 and the American commando raid that killed al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last year.

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