A Pakistani at a hospital in Peshawar comforts another man mourning a relative… (Mohammad Sajjad / Associated…)
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Militants launched a coordinated assault on the main airport in the northwest city of Peshawar late Saturday, killing at least five people and injuring 45 others in an attack likely to renew questions about the government’s ability to combat Pakistan’s five-year insurgency.
[Updated 11:57 a.m. Dec. 15: Authorities later raised the death toll to nine -- four civilians and five militants.]
Militants fired a volley of rocket-propelled grenades at Bacha Khan International Airport, damaging a section of the boundary wall, said Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain. The airport is also home to an air base used by the Pakistani air force.
No aircraft were damaged in the attack, and after a couple of hours troops had secured the airport and surrounding area, Hussain said.
There was no word as of late Saturday night where those who were killed or injured were at the time of the attack, but local authorities said most of the rocket fire hit houses in an upscale neighborhood outside of the airport complex.
After the initial volley of rockets, gunfire between militants and security forces continued for at least two hours. Television footage showed bystanders seeking cover and ambulances rushed the injured to local hospitals.
Perched on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal belt that serves as sanctuary for an array of Islamic militant groups, Peshawar has been hard hit by acts of terror in recent years. Pakistani Taliban militants have attacked police checkpoints and stations, markets and even school buses in the city, the largest in northwest Pakistan.
Despite the regularity of attacks in Peshawar, assaults on the airport have been extremely rare.
Pakistani troops have retaken large swaths of the tribal belt along the Afghan border once overrun with militant groups, but they have been unable to completely eradicate an insurgency that has plagued the country with suicide bombings, kidnappings and other violent acts.
Though the frequency of Pakistani Taliban attacks has dropped off in the last couple of years, the insurgent group has still shown a capability to strike high-profile targets.
In August, eight Taliban militants scaled a wall at a northern air force base with suspected links to the country’s nuclear weapons system and exchanged gunfire with security forces for more than two hours before they were slain. A security officer at the base, located in the northern city of Kamra, was killed and rocket fire damaged an aircraft at the base.
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Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and Ali from Peshawar.