KAMRA/ATTOK/ISLAMABAD - The security officials successfully repulsed an attack at the PAF Minhas airbase in wee hours of Thursday, killing eight terrorists. A ninth militant, hiding outside the boundary wall, exploded his suicide vest in desperation when cornered.

One security staffer was martyred fighting the insurgents while four others, including the base commander, were wounded and shifted to the PAC Hospital, where they were later stated to be stable. The Pakistan Air Force said one plane also suffered damage in the Taliban claimed attack that came at around 2:15am.

PAF Minhas in Kamra town of the Punjab is some 15 kilometres from Attock and 60 kilometres northwest of capital Islamabad. The adjacent Pakistan Aeronautical Complex assembles Mirage and JF-17 fighter jets, with Chinese help. And, reportedly some Chinese engineers were also present there when the attack came.

But they were secure like their Pakistani counterparts as the PAF commandoes intercepted the attackers near the outer boundary and hunted them down there, successfully preventing them from entering any of the compounds at the facility.

TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed that four of their fighters were killed after destroying three aircraft and killing a dozen soldiers. He declared it to be a successful operation carried out to avenge the killing of former al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

PAF authorities said nine attackers dressed in military uniforms and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests targeted the base and the aeronautical complex. Witnesses said the terrorists apparently sneaked into the airbase by scaling nine-foot boundary wall, reinforced with barbed wire, from the backside.

The terrorists exploited the night of 27th of Ramzan, which is considered as the most sacred night among the Muslims and devoted for worship. At the time of the attack most of the men of the nearby village Pind Suleman Makhan were in mosques for prayers while most of the men at the airbase were also busy in worship.

“Most of the male residents of the village were in mosques for special prayers,” local resident said. “I heard three or four explosions, there was heavy gunfire also,” he said. “It appears that the militants arrived using a village track and climbed over the wall.”

One officer told AFP that he saw flames after waking up for his late night meal, eaten during the dawn-to-dusk Muslim fasting month. “There was an announcement by megaphone for soldiers not to move from the barracks and we were forbidden from going to the area where I saw the fire,” he said. Special forces and police were scrambled to the scene.

“Eight miscreants were killed inside the Minhas base boundary wall and one miscreant exploded himself outside the perimeters where he was hiding,” the air force announced. It said there had been a shootout “for more than two hours”. Officials at the Air Headquarters said the miscreants wanted to target 32 PAF jets at the Minhas Base including the Orion and JF-17 Thunder.

Sepoy Asif Ahmed was martyred in the encounter while Base Commander Minhas Base Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, who himself led the operation, received a bullet in his right shoulder. Two of the other three injured officials were identified as Naik Ashraf and Sepoy Iqbal. They all were stated to be in stable condition at the PAC Hospital.

Ten hours after the assault began, PAF spokesman Group Captain Tariq Mehmood confirmed the base was ‘totally safe’. “Operation by the security officials at PAF Base Minhas has been concluded. The PAF armament experts found Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) during the area search, scanning and combing operation. The IED’s which could not be removed safely, are being detonated in control environment,” he added.

He confirmed that a PAF aircraft was damaged during militants attack but did not disclose its type and model. The security men then removed the explosive mines laid by the terrorists. Some other sources said that terrorists set ablaze a refuelling oil tanker and damaged a vehicle and latter hit a surveillance aircraft.

An air force statement late Thursday said Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt had appointed a four-member board of inquiry headed by Air Marshal Syed Athar Hussain Bukhari. The air chief also announced an award of one million rupees ($10,600) for the martyred soldier’s family, it said. President Zardari, who returned from Saudi Arabia after attending the meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OCI), and Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf condemned the terrorist attack.

The militant attack led to usual ringing of false alarms in the foreign media that militants could get access to country’s nuclear arms, ignoring the fact that no airbase in Pakistan houses nuclear material. Foreign ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan forcefully denied that impression, saying: “We have a robust command and control, so nobody should really worry about the security and safety of our assets.”

The first strike on a base in more than a year came amid reports that Pakistan could bow to US demands for an operation in North Waziristan against supposed militants launching attacks from there against the western and Afghan troops inside Afghanistan. “An example would be made out of everyone who follows the dictation of Western powers,” the TTP said in a statement sent to journalists.

The TTP has been finding refuge in the bordering Afghanistan whenever Pakistan troops launched operations against them. Despite repeated protests of Pakistan, they still have sanctuaries in the bordering Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar. Interestingly, the CIA too in its drone attacks inside Pakistan has rarely targeted the TTP, which only targets Pakistani forces.

During the follow-up operation of the security forces on Thursday, the fighter helicopters of the PAF searched the surrounding areas while the entrance and exits of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and the main GT Road were sealed. Attock Police headed by DPO Muhammad Hilal Khan reached the spot and cordoned off the area by blocking the roads leading to Kamra until the completion of the operation. The police also carried out a search operation in the nearby village Pind salman makhan and Urtakpur Kamra and Shmasabad areas. Pakistan Rangers also reached the main entrance of the base; however, they did not take part in the operation.

A cell phone of one of the terrorists was recovered in operational condition which will certainly help security agencies in finding the origin of the terrorists. Two explosive devices were also recovered from the area. Later, a case was registered with the Attock Saddar police station and particulars of suspects were being collected from the surrounding areas. Officials said a team of NADRA (National Database Registration Authority) would visit Kamra tomorrow to determine the identity of the nine attackers using scientific applications.

The air chief also announced an award of one million rupees for the ‘martyred’ soldier’s family, it said.