Saturday, October 10, 2009

Gunmen attack Pakistani army HQ and take hostages

By Augustine Anthony

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Suspected Taliban gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked the Pakistani army's headquarters on Saturday, killing six soldiers and taking up to 15 hostages after a gun battle, military officials said.

Security officials try to secure a perimeter outside the main gates to Pakistan's army headquarters after an attack by armed men in Rawalpindi, on the outskirts of Islamabad, October 10, 2009. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

The brazen attack on the tightly guarded headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi came as the military prepares a major offensive against the militants in their northwestern stronghold of South Waziristan on the Afghan border.

Four of the gunmen were killed but military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said four or five gunmen were holding hostages in a security agency office building near the army headquarters.

"We're facing an extraordinary situation. It's a very difficult hostage situation," Abbas told Geo television. "What I can say is that four to five terrorists and 10 to 15 hostages are there."

"Now a plan is being drawn up through which the lives of as many hostages as possible can be saved," he said.

Pakistani Taliban militants linked to al Qaeda have launched numerous attacks in Pakistan over the past couple of years, most aimed at the security forces or government and foreign targets. Militants have attacked military targets in Rawalpindi before.

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a U.N. office in the capital Islamabad, and on Friday a suspected suicide car-bomber killed 49 people in Peshawar -- an attack that the government said underscored the need for the all-out offensive against the Taliban.

"What happened in Peshawar, Islamabad and today, all roads lead to South Waziristan," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

"The TTP (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) is behind all of these attacks, and now the government has no other option but to launch an offensive," he said.


Saturday's gunmen drove in a white van with military licence plates to a main gate of the complex, where they were challenged by soldiers and opened fire and threw a grenade. The exchange of fire with troops lasted about 40 minutes.

Six soldiers, including a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel who were passing through the gate, were killed. Four gunmen were killed there.

Television pictures showed the militants' van, its doors open, where the gunmen had abandoned it beside barriers outside the gate.

Early this year, militants pushed to within 100 km (60 miles) of Islamabad, raising fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability. An exasperated U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the government appeared to be "abdicating" to the militants.

The United States needs Pakistani help against militants crossing into Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces there.

In late April, the security forces launched an offensive in the Swat valley, 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, largely clearing the Taliban from the region.

The militants suffered another major blow on Aug. 5, when their overall leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a missile attack by a U.S. drone aircraft in South Waziristan.

The United States and India have also called for action against Afghan Taliban factions on the border and anti-Indian militant groups based in Pakistan's Punjab province.

North West Frontier Province Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain called for the elimination of militant bases in Punjab, telling reporters that, even if an offensive were successful in South Waziristan, militants would get support from Punjab.

The government ordered the army to go on the offensive in South Waziristan in June and security forces have been launching air and artillery strikes while moving troops into surrounding areas, blockading the region and trying to split off factions.

The army has declined to say when it will send ground troops in.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Sheree Sardar; writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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