The scene after the Taliban attack near the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar,… (Anjum Naveed / Associated…)
Reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan — Taliban militants reeling from American and Pakistani attacks launched a sophisticated raid on the heavily guarded U.S. Consulate in Peshawar on Monday, killing at least five security personnel in suicide bomb blasts and barrages of grenades and automatic gunfire.
The midday attack failed to penetrate the facility in the volatile city near the Afghan border, and none of the staff members were injured or killed. The consulate is instrumental in channeling millions of dollars in U.S. aid into Pakistan's impoverished tribal areas and the Swat Valley region, part of Washington's long-term strategy aimed at eliminating support for the Taliban.
Hours before the attack, a bomber walked into a political rally in northwestern Pakistan's Dir region and detonated his explosives-filled vest, killing 45 people and injuring more than 100.
The violence comes at a time when Pakistan and the U.S. have intensified efforts to uproot Taliban militants from the country's tribal badlands along the Afghan border, and say they have the Taliban on the run.
Pakistan has deployed thousands of troops in tribal areas that have long been Taliban strongholds and has regained large swaths of territory. The U.S. has dramatically stepped up its campaign of drone-launched missile strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in recent months. Those airstrikes have killed several top leaders in both militant groups, including top Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud in August and his successor, Hakimullah Mahsud, in January.
Pakistan also has captured several high-ranking officials of the Afghan Taliban who were operating in the country.
Despite the blows, Taliban leaders recently warned that they were as potent as ever. In an interview last week with the English-language newspaper Dawn, Wali ur-Rehman, a top Taliban leader, said the militant group was prepared to turn every corner of Pakistan into a battlefield. He also warned that the Taliban would target sensitive installations throughout the country, the paper reported.
In the past, the Taliban has set its sights on high-profile targets such as military and police facilities and luxury hotels.
A Pakistani Taliban spokesman told CNN that the militant group took responsibility for the latest violence in Peshawar and Dir.
The consulate's security cordon appeared to thwart the militants, who police said clearly had wanted to breach the compound and attack the consulate building itself. Witnesses said a white Toyota Corolla with two militants tried to speed through a heavily fortified gate behind a car that had been authorized to enter.
Security guards activated a metal barrier that barred the militants' way. Moments later, the militants detonated explosives inside the car. The blast tore away the back wall of a nearby Pakistani army barracks, which was empty at the time, and threw an armored personnel carrier about 50 feet.
Moments later, four or five militants in a second vehicle pulled up, jumped out and opened fire on guards, Pakistani army troops and Frontier Corps paramilitary forces. Witnesses said the exchange of gunfire lasted 20 minutes. Militants fired rocket-propelled grenades, one of which struck the consulate building, security officials said.
"There was this massive blast, and then the whole area went all black," said Mohammed Ishtiaq, one of the security guards manning the main gate. "Then it began raining bullets."
A second blast occurred when one of the militants, armed with a suicide vest, detonated his explosives in the midst of the crossfire. At least four of the gunmen escaped, said a security official at the scene who asked not to be named.
Two of the dead were Pakistani security guards employed by the consulate to secure the compound, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said in a statement. One member of the Frontier Corps paramilitary force, a Pakistani soldier and a Peshawar police officer were also killed, police said.
At least three of the militants were killed.
Police said they found four suicide vests at the scene, an indication of the scale of the attack the militants had envisioned.
Monday's violence follows a period of relative calm in Pakistan, where troops continue to flush out Taliban insurgents from tribal regions along the Afghan border that militants have used as sanctuary for years.
Pakistani military leaders say their troops have already regained control over South Waziristan, a hub for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, and the Bajaur region that once served as a base for Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri. However, militants have been able to seed new cells in other parts of the country.