KAMRA, Pakistan - A team of nine Taliban militants attacked a Pakistani air force base with suspected links to the country's nuclear program before dawn Thursday, killing a security official in a heavy battle that ended with the insurgents dead and parts of the base in flames, officials said.
The attack on the base in Kamra, located only about 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Islamabad, was a brazen reminder of the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban despite numerous military offensives against their sanctuaries along the Afghan border.
The large air base hosts a variety of fighter jets, including F-16s, and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems. Some experts suspect the base could be linked to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal because of the weapons development there and the presence of jets that could be used to deploy the bombs. The army has denied the base has any links, but the nuclear program's secret nature makes independent evaluation difficult.
The safety of the country's nuclear weapons has been a major concern for the United States. Western experts say Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a rapid expansion of its arsenal.
"The great danger we've always feared is that, you know, if terrorism is not controlled in their country, that those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands," U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The militants, some of whom were wearing explosives strapped to their bodies, attacked the base at around 2 a.m. with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the air force.
At least one of the rockets hit a hanger holding a number of aircraft said air force spokesman, Tariq Mahmood. The rocket pierced the hanger wall, and shrapnel from the explosion damaged one of the aircraft parked inside.
After the rocket barrage, the attackers scaled the wall surrounding the air base, said Mahmood.
Guards inside the base then opened fire on the militants, and an intense firefight ensued, he said. In the initial exchange of gunfire one Pakistani soldier was killed.
Security forces, backed by a team of elite commandos, fought the militants for two hours and were finally able to retake the base, the air force said.
Nine militants and one security personnel were killed in the fighting. The head of the base, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, was wounded in the shoulder, said Mahmood.
Eight of the militants were killed inside the territory of the base while the body of another was found outside the base perimeter, where he blew himself up, the air force said in a statement.
Security forces searching the area after the attack found a "few IEDs," which they either removed or destroyed, the spokesman said.
The base is formally known as Air Force Base Minhas. It was named after a pilot, Rashid Minhas, lauded as a hero in Pakistan for foiling attempts by his instructor to defect with an air force plane to archrival India in 1971. To stop the escape, Minhas disabled the controls of the plane the two were flying, and died in the resulting crash.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attack on air base, saying it was revenge for the death of the group's leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike in 2009 and the American commando raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last year. He claimed the militants damaged three fighter jets during the attack.
The Pakistani Taliban have waged a bloody insurgency against the government for the past several years that has killed tens of thousands of people. While the group has carried out hundreds of bombings and other attacks through the country, raids against military bases are somewhat uncommon.
Half a dozen Taliban militants attacked a major naval base in the southern port city of Karachi in May 2011, killing at least 10 people and destroying two U.S.-supplied surveillance aircraft. It took Pakistani commandos 18 hours to retake Naval Station Mehran, and two of the attackers managed to escape. That the attackers managed to infiltrate so deep into the high-security base led to speculation they may have had inside information or assistance.
In 2009, militants dressed in fatigues attacked army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi, just outside Islamabad, and took 30 people hostage. Pakistani commandos finally raided the compound 22 hours later. Three captives and four militants were among those killed.
There have been at least three attacks in the vicinity of the Minhas base since 2007, but all of them occurred outside the installation.
In 2009, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up on a road leading to the base, killing seven people. A year earlier, three rockets were fired at an area near the base, but no one was hurt. In 2007, a suicide car bomber wounded five children on an air force bus carrying them to school near the base.
The Pakistani army has carried out numerous offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in the country's semiautonomous tribal area along the Afghan border and appears to be planning an operation in the group's last major sanctuary in North Waziristan.
Panetta told The Associated Press earlier this week that Pakistan has informed American military officials that it plans to launch an operation against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan in the "near future."
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad, Munir Ahmed and Rebecca Santana in Islamabad contributed to this report.