By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s busiest airport came under attack Tuesday for the second time this week when assailants riding a motorbike sprayed bullets at a camp used by security forces and escaped.
A heavy contingent of Pakistani soldiers were searching for the attackers in slums near the sprawling port city of Karachi’s airport, which again briefly suspended all flights.
No casualties were reported and the attackers did not breach the gate of the security facility, but the incident underscored the worsening security crisis in Pakistan barely two days after heavily armed militants stormed an auxiliary terminal at the airport and engaged in an hours-long firefight with security forces that left 36 people dead, including 10 attackers.
After a 28-hour search-and-rescue operation, at least seven bodies were recovered early Tuesday from the airport’s cold-storage facility, where the victims had taken shelter during the siege.
The Pakistani Taliban, a banned militant organization, claimed responsibility for both attacks and has vowed to unleash more violence in response to government airstrikes on its hideouts in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas.
The Pakistani military has stepped up its air campaign in recent months as a bid to open peace talks with the militants has collapsed. Early Tuesday, Pakistani air force jets bombed nine insurgent hideouts in the Khyber Agency tribal area, killing 25 militants, according to officials.
The military wouldn’t immediately comment on whether the airstrikes were in retaliation for the Sunday night attack on the airport. The area that was bombarded, the remote Tirah Valley, has traditionally been a haven for other armed groups besides the Pakistani Taliban, but analysts say that the swirling mix of militants and allegiances in northeast Pakistan is growing even more chaotic.
The attacks in Karachi have been a show of strength by the Pakistani Taliban, a traditionally loose federation of militant groups united by their opposition to the central government in Islamabad.
The group had appeared to be on its heels in recent days after the defection of a leading commander, the assassination of another and the government’s June 6 announcement of a 15-day deadline for militants to withdraw from the North Waziristan tribal area ahead of an expected military operation.
With Sunday’s attack, which forced the closure of Pakistan’s busiest airport and sent shudders through a city that many had thought was accustomed to militant violence, analysts say powerful factions inside the Pakistani Taliban are trying to warn the government against opting for military action. The assailants who raided the airport Sunday night included fighters from Uzbekistan, security officials said, indicating that the insurgent group had reached into its well of highly trained foreign jihadists to carry out a signature attack.
“What they are trying to demonstrate is the Taliban movement has enough capability and capacity to challenge the state anywhere it likes,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent security analyst based in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
“Therefore, if Pakistan decides to go for military action in the tribal areas, then they should be prepared to face the consequences, which is retaliation by the Taliban.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power last year with strong support from Islamist voters, many of whom are sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban, has ignored the wishes of powerful army generals and sought to negotiate with the insurgents instead of bombard them. The seven-month-long effort to begin peace talks has made little progress, however, and Sharif is under growing pressure to mount a major military operation as violence increases, particularly in Pakistan’s crowded cities.
Many analysts believe that the Pakistani Taliban will gain more breathing room after the end of the year, when U.S.-led NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan end their combat mission, possibly easing pressure on the Afghan Taliban and giving them more freedom of movement along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Pakistani Taliban is an operationally distinct organization but the two groups are ideological allies.
Yet Sharif’s government remains plainly conflicted about launching an offensive. In statements, he and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan condemned the Sunday night attack on the airport but did not criticize the Pakistani Taliban.
“The civilian government still hasn’t made up its mind, but ultimately they will be forced by the circumstances to overcome their ideological inhibitions” and take stronger military action, Rizvi said.
AFP Photo/Rizwan Tabassum