Pakistani Forces Free Hostages Taken by Islamist Militants

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 11 -- Pakistani commandos stormed a building within the nation's army headquarters early Sunday, freeing 39 hostages and ending a 22-hour standoff with their armed Islamist captors that revealed deep vulnerabilities in Pakistan's defense systems.

Three hostages and three soldiers were killed during the predawn operation to liberate the hostages, an army spokesman said. In total, 20 people -- including nine militants and eight soldiers -- died in the siege, which began Saturday morning when a squad of fighters armed with guns and grenades brazenly attacked the army command center in Rawalpindi, which is adjacent to Islamabad, the capital.

The Saturday attack seemed designed to publicly humiliate Pakistan's armed forces, which have been planning an offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in the volatile tribal region of South Waziristan, analysts said. As the standoff developed, it cast doubt on the military's ability to fend off the extremists and raised questions about whether the fighters -- who wore soldiers' uniforms and drove a van with military plates -- had infiltrated the army.

But once the tense showdown ended, the military began winning praise. Security analysts commended the rescue operation, during which commandos fatally shot one militant before he could detonate his suicide vest.

"It has been very competently handled," said Mahmood Shah, a security analyst and retired army general. "They freed the hostages with a minimum loss."

An injured militant whom the army identified as the ringleader was captured, raising the possibility that Pakistani authorities might learn more about the insurgent cell that carried out the strike. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, said that the insurgent is named Aqeel but is also known as Dr. Usman. Abbas said that Aqeel had masterminded an attack this year on Sri Lanka's cricket team in the eastern city of Lahore.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Sunday that the South Waziristan operation was "imminent" and said that Aqeel was a Taliban member with links to al-Qaeda, the news service Reuters reported.

The Pakistani Taliban's new chief has said the group would respond to the South Waziristan offensive with stepped-up attacks. The assault on the army headquarters came during the same week as a suicide bombing at a United Nations office in Islamabad and a blast that killed dozens at a market in Peshawar.

The U.S. Congress late last month approved a multibillion-dollar aid package for Pakistan, and Obama administration officials are pressing Pakistan's military to take on insurgents who operate within the nation's borders. The militants use the country as a base for planning attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and against the Pakistani government. The possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of extremists is one of the Obama administration's national security nightmares.

But in London on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her British counterpart said they believed Pakistan's nuclear weapons were secure, despite the growing threats of Islamist militancy.

"We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over nuclear weapons," Clinton said after a meeting with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in London and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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