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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Ten heavily armed attackers stormed the international airport in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, late Sunday night, prompting an hours-long gun battle that left 13 people dead before the assailants were killed, officials said.

Pakistani security forces declared the siege of Jinnah International Airport over about 4:30 a.m., five hours after the first sounds of gunfire and explosions sent travelers running for safety. Officials said that army soldiers killed the 10 attackers and that a large fire in one building was extinguished.

Just after dawn Monday, Pakistani forces conducted a precautionary sweep of the airport and declared that it would be cleared to resume flight operations by midday, said Asim Bajwa, spokesman for Pakistani security forces.

Pakistani news organizations said 13 people were killed in the attack, including security personnel and at least one employee of Pakistan International Airlines, the state-run carrier. Passengers and airline staff were evacuated just after the attack began.

The siege shocked a nation that has become accustomed to brazen terrorist assaults on its major cities. No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out coordinated attacks on military and civilian targets in recent months in what it has called retaliation for Pakistani strikes on its hide-outs in the country’s tribal areas.

Television news reports suggested that a parked plane was on fire, but officials said the blaze turned out to be in a nearby building. Bajwa said that “all vital assets (were) intact.”

Police officials said the attackers, who were wearing masks, airport security uniforms and large backpacks, raided the airport from three sides in a coordinated assault shortly before midnight, hurling hand grenades and firing heavy weapons. Authorities recovered rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.

Pakistani army troops and commandos surrounded the airport as civil aviation authorities issued an alert to all air facilities in the country. All flights into and out of Karachi were suspended.

Bajwa said that Pakistani forces cornered the attackers in two parts of the airport and “eliminated them.” Witnesses and social media accounts reported that firing could still be heard well into Monday morning.

“A heavy contingent of security officials are deputed to ensure security of passengers,” Munir Sheikh, a senior police official in Karachi, told the Los Angeles Times.

Eyewitnesses said the attackers were wearing suicide vests and carrying heavy ammunition.

“They entered the airport and started firing straight at the security officials. We hid just to save ourselves,” one young man told Pakistan’s Express News channel.

Another witness, an employee of a private company at the airport, told the channel that three of the attackers “looked like Uzbeks and Chinese. They were not local. They were wearing suicide jackets and had a lot of ammunition with them. They went toward the runway while firing.”

The channel did not identify the witnesses.

The gunmen entered the airport through the old terminal, which is generally used by charter flights and passengers embarking on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The airport, Pakistan’s busiest, is used by international carriers including Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways, and several Pakistani and regional carriers.

Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, has long been a target of militant attacks. A cease-fire between the government and the Pakistani Taliban, a federation of insurgent groups, expired in April after a failed bid to launch peace talks.

“Only organizations like al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban have the capability to carry out such attacks, and both have a presence in Karachi,” said a security official in Karachi who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

In a separate incident Sunday, suicide bombers attacked a hotel where Shiite Muslim pilgrims were staying in the volatile Baluchistan province, killing at least 23 people, according to provincial officials. No group claimed responsibility in that incident either, although attacks on minority Shiites in Baluchistan have often been carried out by sectarian militias that are distinct from the Pakistani Taliban.

AFP Photo

Trump speaking at Londonderry, NH rally

Screenshot from YouTube

Donald Trump once again baselessly claimed on Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic was "going to be over" soon, just hours after his chief of staff suggested the administration was unable to get it under control.

"Now we have the best tests, and we are coming around, we're rounding the turn," Trump said at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. "We have the vaccines, we have everything. We're rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, we're rounding the turn, it's going to be over."

Trump has made similar claims on repeated occasions in the past, stating early on in the pandemic that the coronavirus would go away on its own, then with the return of warmer weather.

That has not happened: Over the past several weeks, multiple states have seen a surge in cases of COVID-19, with some places, including Utah, Texas, and Wisconsin, setting up overflow hospital units to accommodate the rapidly growing number of patients.

Hours earlier on Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared to contradict Trump, telling CNN that there was no point in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus because it was, for all intents and purposes, out of their control.

"We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," he said. "Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu."

Meadows doubled own on Monday, telling reporters, "We're going to defeat the virus; we're not going to control it."

"We will try to contain it as best we can, but if you look at the full context of what I was talking about, we need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines, we may need to make sure that when people get sick, that, that they have the kind of therapies that the president of the United States had," he added.Public health experts, including those in Trump's own administration, have made it clear that there are two major things that could curb the pandemic's spread: mask wearing and social distancing.

But Trump has repeatedly undermined both, expressing doubt about the efficacy of masks and repeatedly ignoring social distancing and other safety rules — even when doing so violated local and state laws.

Trump, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, openly mocked a reporter on Friday for wearing a mask at the White House — which continues to be a hotspot for the virus and which was the location of a superspreader event late last month that led to dozens of cases. "He's got a mask on that's the largest mask I think I've ever seen. So I don't know if you can hear him," Trump said as his maskless staff laughed alongside him.

At the Manchester rally on Sunday, Trump also bragged of "unbelievable" crowd sizes at his mass campaign events. "There are thousands of people there," he claimed, before bashing former Vice President Joe Biden for holding socially distant campaign events that followed COVID safety protocols.

"They had 42 people," he said of a recent Biden campaign event featuring former President Barack Obama. "He drew flies, did you ever hear the expression?"

Last Monday, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) endorsed Biden's approach to the pandemic as better than Trump's, without "any doubt."

"The more we go down the road resisting masks and distance and tracing and the things that the scientists are telling us, I think the more concerned I get about our management of the COVID situation," he told CNN.

In his final debate against Biden last Thursday, Trump was asked what his plan was to end the pandemic. His answer made it clear that, aside from waiting for a vaccine, he does not have one.

"There is a spike, there was a spike in Florida and it's now gone. There was a very big spike in Texas — it's now gone. There was a spike in Arizona, it is now gone. There are spikes and surges in other places — they will soon be gone," he boasted. "We have a vaccine that is ready and it will be announced within weeks and it's going to be delivered. We have Operation Warp Speed, which is the military is going to distribute the vaccine."

Experts have said a safe vaccine will likely not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, and that most people will not be able to be vaccinated until next year.

Trump also bragged Sunday that he had been "congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we have been able to do," without laying out any other strategy for going forward.

Nationally, new cases set a single-day record this weekend, with roughly 84,000 people testing positive each day. More than 8.5 million Americans have now contracted the virus and about 225,000 have died.

Trump, by contrast, tweeted on Monday that he has "made tremendous progress" with the virus, while suggesting that it should be illegal for the media to report on it before the election.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.