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Karachi siege exposes Pakistan military's vulnerabilities

That a small group of Pakistani Taliban militants could find and exploit a weak spot to enter the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi, and then fight off troops for 17 hours, raises new questions about the military's preparedness.

May 24, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
  • Pakistani troops drive past a wreckage of a gutted aircraft at Mehran Naval Station in Karachi. It took 17 hours for Pakistani commandos to regain control of the base after an attack by Pakistan Taliban militants.
Pakistani troops drive past a wreckage of a gutted aircraft at Mehran Naval… (Shakil Adil, Associated…)

Reporting from Islamabad and Washington — 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 in 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 Pakistani 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 of Osama bin Laden in the military city of Abbottabad.

The breach is likely to raise worries among leaders in the United States and Europe about the security of Pakistan's approximately 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 in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and now is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said the 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.

"They used very tactfully, intelligently, the place where there's a gap where both cameras could not see," Malik said.

Once on the tarmac, they blew up one of two P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, given to the Pakistani navy by the U.S. in June. The explosion of the craft's fuel tank destroyed the second surveillance plane nearby. The aircraft had special equipment for the detection of submarines and were used for maritime patrols.

Seventeen foreigners — six American and 11 Chinese workers — who were at the base when the siege began were unhurt. U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez said the Americans were private contractors providing technical support for the surveillance aircraft. They were not connected with the embassy.

Of the 10 Pakistani security personnel killed, three were Navy commandos and one was a navy lieutenant who led a team of commandos to confront the militants once they had reached the surveillance aircraft, Malik said.

Three of the militants were shot to death by Pakistani security forces. The fourth went inside an office building at the base and detonated the explosives vest he was wearing. Malik said security forces were checking to see whether the militant had set any booby traps in the building.

Peter W. Galbraith, former deputy U.N. representative to Afghanistan, said the siege was not necessarily "indicative that the military is incompetent."

"It is the dynamic of having lots of military locations and militants that can try to fight their way onto one of them," said Galbraith, now a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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