By Alex Rodriguez and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
The team of Islamist militants knew exactly where the naval base’s weak spot was.
Dressed in black and armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, they crept up to the back wall of Mehran Naval Station inÂ Karachi, keeping clear of security cameras. Then, with just a pair of ladders, they clambered over the wall, cutting through barbed wire at the top, to launch a 17-hour siege that would renew disturbing questions about the Pakistani military’s ability to defend sensitive installations, including its nuclear arsenal.
The team, believed to consist of four to six militants, destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime surveillance aircraft and engaged security forces in hours of pitched firefights. It was not until late Monday afternoon that Pakistani forces regained full control of the facility.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 10 Pakistani security personnel were killed and 15 were injured. Four militants died and two were believed to have escaped, he said.
The PakistaniÂ Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency with ties to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was meant to avenge the May 2 killing ofÂ Osama bin Laden in the military city ofÂ Abbottabad.
The breach is likely to raise worries among leaders in the United States and Europe about the security ofÂ Pakistan’sapproximately 100 nuclear weapons.
“I’m sure there will be concerns around the world about this, there’s no doubt about it,” said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. “I think Pakistan will have to make certain that anything like this cannot be repeated from the standpoint of nuclear installations.”
Masood called the siege “a very strong indictment of Pakistan and its security forces and their ability to defend themselves. It will have a very demoralizing effect on the people, because if the security forces are unable to secure themselves and defend themselves, what expectations can the people have that the security forces will be able to defend the population?”
In Washington, retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno said the attack “comes at a tough time for the Pakistani military. Not only was the U.S. able to infiltrate Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden under their noses, now militants attack a Pakistani base. This has a shock value.”
Barno, who led the military command inÂ Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and now is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said theÂ U.S. military is increasingly concerned that militant sympathizers appear to have infiltrated Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
The siege at the naval base in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and its financial capital, began about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Interior Minister Malik said the militants avoided the base’s heavily fortified front gate, instead approaching from behind, near the Shah Faisal Colony, a low-income neighborhood where Islamist militants have been arrested in the past.
They crossed a small stream behind the base, then used one of the ladders they had brought with them. Malik said the militants apparently knew about a gap in the coverage of two security cameras and chose that location to get inside. They placed the second ladder on the inside of the wall, climbed down, and darted toward the two large surveillance aircraft, kept in a hangar.
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