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TROOPS yesterday recaptured a Pakistani naval air force base after a 16-hour battle with Taliban gunmen who had attacked the base to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Interior minister Rehman Malik said just six militants were believed to have been involved in the attack on the PNS Mehran base in Karachi late on Sunday, destroying or damaging two aircraft and laying siege to a main building in one of the most heavily guarded bases in Pakistan.
The assault casts fresh doubt on the Pakistani military’s ability to protect its bases, following a raid on army headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 and is a further embarrassment following the surprise raid by United States special forces on the al-Qaida leader’s hideout in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad, on May 2.
At least 10 military personnel were killed and 20 wounded in the assault, a navy spokesman said.
Malik said four militants were killed in the battle.
Two suspects were believed to have fled the scene, he added.
The Pakistan Taliban, who are allied with al-Qaida, said they had staged the attack to avenge bin Laden’s death.
“It was the revenge of martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful,” said Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Malik said the militants used two ladders to scale the walls of the base and jumped in by cutting barbed wire.
The militants used guns and grenades in the attack on the base, 27km from the Masroor Air Base, Pakistan’s largest and a possible nuclear depot.
As troops wound down their assault, some Karachi residents said they could not believe security could have been so lax.
“If these people can just enter a military base like this, then how can any Pakistani feel safe?” asked Mazhar Iqbal, an engineering company administrator.
“The government and the army are just corrupt. We need new leaders with a vision for Pakistan.”
A maritime patrol aircraft supplied by the US was destroyed and another aircraft was damaged.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks since bin Laden’s death, killing almost 80 people in a suicide bombing on a paramilitary academy and an assault on a US consular vehicle in Peshawar.
The US sees Pakistan as a key, if difficult, ally essential to its attempts to root out militant forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, however, sees militant groups as leverage to ward off the influence of its old enemy, India, in Afghanistan. The discovery that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad has revived suspicion that militants may be receiving help from security forces.
Pakistan says its senior leadership did not know of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but his presence, and his killing, strained already fragile ties with the US and deeply embarrassed Pakistan’s military.