Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistani security forces on Monday retook control of a naval base in Karachi that had been under siege by militants for 17 hours, but the brazen, commando-style attack renewed disturbing questions about the military's ability to defend sensitive installations, including its nuclear arsenal.
A team of 10 to 15 militants armed with rocket launchers, AK-47s and hand grenades stormed the Mehran Naval Station late Sunday, destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime surveillance aircraft at the base and then engaged Pakistani navy commandos and soldiers in a pitched firefight that ended late Monday afternoon.
Navy spokesman Irfan ul-Haq said 12 commandos and soldiers were killed and another 14 were injured. Ul-Haq would not say how many militants were killed or captured.
The Pakistani Taliban, the country's homegrown insurgency and an Al Qaeda-allied militant group, claimed responsibility. It said the raid was meant to avenge the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. commandos May 2 in the military city of Abbottabad.
The raid marked the most devastating attack on a Pakistani military installation since October 2009, when a team of militants stormed the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and took hostages, beginning a 22-hour standoff that ended in the deaths of 23 people, including nine militants.
That attack raised serious questions within Pakistani society about the military's capability to defend not just civilians, but also itself from Islamist militant violence, and those doubts would likely be renewed by the assault in Karachi. Even before Sunday, the public's confidence in the military had been shaken by the raid on the Bin Laden and the ease with which U.S. military helicopters were able to slip deep into Pakistani territory undetected.
Moreover, the attack in Karachi would probably raise fears among leaders in Washington and Europe about Pakistan's ability to secure its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to consist of about 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 in Karachi "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?"
The attack on the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and its financial capital, began about 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the militants, dressed in black, converged on the base from three sides. Behind the base is the Shah Faisal Colony, a poor, run-down neighborhood from which Islamic militants have been arrested in the past.
The militants were able to shoot their way past the base's outer cordon of security guards and get inside, where they split into groups. The two P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft that the militants destroyed were given to the Pakistani navy by the U.S. in June 2010. The aircraft are used for maritime patrol and equipped with special equipment for the detection of submarines.
The Pakistani Taliban had vowed to avenge Bin Laden's killing with attacks on Pakistanis and Americans. Their first major retaliatory strike took place May 13, when twin suicide bombings killed at least 80 paramilitary recruits in the northwest town of Shabqadar. On Friday, a car bomb targeted two U.S. consulate vehicles in the northwest city of Peshawar, killing a Pakistani bystander and slightly injuring Americans inside the cars.
Special correspondent Mansoor Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.