In a brazen attack on Pakistan’s military nerve center, gunmen disguised in army uniforms broke into the grounds of the country’s army headquarters today, sparking a furious firefight that left four attackers and six military personnel dead.
By late Saturday, the tense scene at the compound had evolved into a hostage crisis. As many as five gunmen remained holed up in a security building and were holding 10 to 15 security officers and civilian workers as hostages, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
The initial attack, which lasted about 90 minutes, illustrated the breadth of the militants’ ability to launch attacks virtually anywhere in the violence-wracked Muslim nation — even the epicenter of its vaunted security establishment.
At about 11:30 a.m., Abbas said, the gunmen drove up in a white Suzuki van to a perimeter checkpoint outside the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Armed with automatic rifles, the gunmen opened fire at guards at the checkpoint, jumped out of the van and then took positions outside a second checkpoint about 330 yards down the road. Four of the military personnel killed in the siege died in that initial exchange of gunfire, Abbas said.
Officials said they believed the use of camouflage military uniforms, along with military plates on the van, probably helped the gunmen approach the first checkpoint without an initial reaction from guards. The strategy mirrored the tactics used in a suicide bomb blast at the U.N.’s World Food Program office Monday. In that attack, in which five World Food Program employees were slain, the suicide bomber wore a Pakistani paramilitary police uniform and got by the heavily guarded main entrance by asking for permission to use the restroom.
Once at the second checkpoint Saturday, the militants opened fire again and lobbed grenades at guards. Witnesses said bursts of gunfire continued to ring out for several minutes, punctuated by the sound of grenade blasts. Overhead, Pakistani military helicopters and Cobra gunships hovered.
While the gun battle raged on, some of the Army’s top generals and commanders were trapped inside the compound’s buildings. There were unconfirmed reports that explosives were found in the attackers’ van.
Police and soldiers established a cordon around the gunmen to keep them from fleeing. By early afternoon, security officials reported that four gunmen had been killed. Among the military personnel killed were a brigadier general and a lieutenant colonel responsible for security at the compound, Abbas said.
Early Saturday evening, military officials said they had traced the location of the gunmen at large to a security building within the compound, where they were holding hostage several security officers and civilian employees assigned to the army headquarters. Pakistani commandos surrounded the building, military officials said.
1:16 ITN News video
These kind of contemptible suicide attacks are really the tactic of an impotent and irrational enemy lashing out in a useless and unproductive manner. Except that in the contemporary era, the dominant voice is that of the militarily unsophisticated Western public, in whose eyes a news headline is equivalent to winning a major battle.
Terrorism’s real battlefield is in the reports of the media.