PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A suicide and rocket attack targeting jet fighters and gunship helicopters at an international airport in northwestern Pakistan killed four civilians and wounded dozens more.
The assault late Saturday, claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, sparked prolonged gunfire and forced authorities to close the airport, a commercial hub and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base in Peshawar, on the edge of the tribal belt.
Television pictures showed a vehicle with a smashed windscreen, another damaged car, bushes on fire and what appeared to be a large breach in a wall.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, said four attackers were involved.
“One of the attackers was wearing a suicide vest and was driving a car. He rammed his car in the outer wall of the airport (compound),” he said.
“Another attacker wearing a suicide vest blew himself up prematurely, killing three of them (the attackers),” he added.
“Rocket launchers were also fired. The attackers failed to reach the target. The dead bodies of the four terrorists are in police custody. Both Peshawar airport and the attached air base are safe,” he said.
Other officials said five militants were dead.
Administrative official Javed Khan Marwat said two rockets landed inside the airport in Peshawar, the main gateway to the semi-autonomous tribal belt on the Afghan border, where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked groups have strongholds.
“A third hit the outer wall of the airport and a nearby vehicle, which killed two people inside the vehicle. Two others landed on a residential area, and dozens of people were wounded,” he said.
He told state television PTV that “three terrorists and one suicide bomber” were killed in the assault, without providing further details.
Farhad Khan, a spokesman for Khyber Teaching Hospital near the airport, said four people died and 50 wounded people had been brought in after the attack. Doctor Umar Ayub confirmed the death toll.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location that the group would continue to target the airport.
“Our target was jet fighter plans and gunship helicopters and soon we will target them again,” he said.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Pervez George confirmed that the airport had been closed, but said there had been no damage to the airport terminals.
“All Pakistani airports at this time are on red alert,” he told Pakistani television.
“All flights to Peshawar have been diverted to Islamabad and (the eastern city of) Lahore,” he added.
Islamist militants have carried out previous attacks on military air bases in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In August, 11 people were killed when heavily armed militants dressed in fatigues and wearing suicide vests stormed an air force base in the northwestern town of Kamra.
In May 2011, it took 17 hours to quell an attack on an air base in Karachi claimed by the Taliban, piling embarrassment on the armed forces just three weeks after US troops killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Pakistan says more than 35,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorism in the country since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Its forces have for years been battling homegrown militants in the northwest.