By Shaiq Hussain and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 11, 2009
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Oct. 10 -- Militants staged a deadly attack on the Pakistani army headquarters Saturday in the most audacious indication yet of their willingness to battle the government -- even at the doorstep of the nation's large and powerful security forces.
The attack amounted to a stunning security breach as the Pakistani military prepares what it says will be an all-out assault against militants in the Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border. At least six military officials were killed.
Pakistani security forces freed "most" of the hostages in a predawn operation, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman. News services reported that 22 hostages had been freed and that three hostages and four gunmen were killed.
Analysts said the attack in this garrison city, just outside the capital, served as a warning by insurgents -- whom Pakistan has long been accused of nurturing -- that the military must rethink its plans.
The mid-day ambush, one of three major attacks this week, was the boldest in a pattern of bloody assaults in a nation the Obama administration views as crucial to its fight against terrorism. As part of a regional anti-terrorism strategy, the United States has approved a significant boost in aid to Pakistan that is conditioned on its doing more to defeat militants who use its lawless border region to plan attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
But militants are also increasingly striking within Pakistan, raising the specter of radical Islamists establishing a foothold beyond the frontier areas and threatening the stability of a nuclear-armed nation led by a weak civilian government. The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the Rawalpindi attack, according to Pakistani television.
Earlier this year, the Pakistani military rooted out Taliban forces that had taken over the Swat Valley, drawing praise from U.S. officials. After the Pakistani Taliban's leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a U.S. missile strike in August, some analysts speculated that the group had been considerably weakened.
But the group's new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, recently told Pakistani reporters that it would step up attacks in the face of the planned offensive in South Waziristan.
The band of fighters caught military personnel off-guard at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Dressed in fatigues and carrying assault weapons, they ambushed an outer checkpoint of the heavily fortified compound. A nearly hour-long gun battle ensued, during which the militants lobbed grenades before rushing a more interior checkpoint, Abbas said.
Six military officials, including two high-ranking officers, were killed, as were four of the fighters, said Abbas, who shortly after the shootout declared the situation "under control."
The attack occurred one day after a suicide car bombing killed at least 49 people at a market in the northwestern city of Peshawar and five days after a Taliban suicide bombing at the U.N. World Food Program office in Islamabad killed five employees.
Pakistani officials responded defiantly Saturday, insisting that the government was neither weakened nor deterred. Government officials had predicted that Taliban fighters would seek to avenge Baitullah Mehsud's death and ward off a military offensive.
"If anything, it will make our resolve that much firmer," a Pakistani intelligence official said. "We know we have to eliminate them, and we will."
Despite the Taliban's assertion of responsibility for the attack, some analysts and intelligence officials said the assault bore the hallmark of Indian fighters, who might have been acting in retaliation for a bombing last week outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Pakistan's intelligence officials have regularly alleged that India, its archrival, supports insurgents fighting in their country.
Ayaz Amir, a Pakistani lawmaker, called the attack "a reflection of the desperation of militants who have safe havens in Waziristan."
News services reported that explosions and gunshots rang out as commandos moved into a building in the complex, while a helicopter hovered in the sky.
Abbas said 20 of the hostages had been kept in a single room guarded by a militant wearing an explosives-laden vest, according to the reports. Troops shot him before he managed to detonate the explosives.
Brulliard reported from Kabul. Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad and correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.