RAWALPINDI, Oct 11 – Troops stormed Pakistan’s army headquarters Sunday to end a day-long hostage drama, freeing 39 people held by militants who brazenly struck at the heart of the military establishment.
Three hostages, two soldiers and four suspected Taliban militants were killed in a rescue operation hailed by the military as "highly successful", despite a total of 19 dead since the rebels launched their assault.
Six soldiers and four other militants had already been killed in the 24-hour siege, which began Saturday in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and was the third dramatic militant strike in the nuclear-armed nation in a week.
The audacious attack exposed Pakistan’s vulnerability in the face of a Taliban militia who have regrouped after the death of their leader and are determined to thwart an army assault on their tribal hideouts, analysts said.
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said troops went in at about 6:00 am (0000 GMT) and met with resistance from five militants armed with suicide vests and barricaded in the building with captive security personnel.
"Thirty-nine hostages were rescued and three were killed," Abbas told AFP, adding that the captives were shot dead by the militants.
"The militants had suicide jackets, improvised explosive devices, grenades… they wanted to blow up all the hostages and cause maximum damage."
He said that two soldiers and four of the insurgents were killed in the hours-long rescue operation. One rebel escaped and detonated a number of explosives, before being injured and arrested.
"The operation is over. It was highly successful," Abbas added.
The drama unfolded just before midday on Saturday, when nine Taliban gunmen in military uniform and armed with automatic weapons and grenades drove up to the compound and shot their way through one checkpost.
Four militants and six soldiers were killed near a second post but the rest of the rebels fled during the firefight, taking military employees hostage in a building near the army HQ in the city adjoining the capital Islamabad.
The military released photographs of the four militants killed Saturday, all young men with shreds of olive-green army uniforms visible on the corpses, while a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel were among the army dead.
In London, visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack underlined the extremist threat in Pakistan — on the frontlines of the US war on Al-Qaeda — and officials here immediately blamed the Taliban.
"They are the enemies of Islam and Pakistan. All their actions are against the sovereignty of Pakistan," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on a local television station.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement is based in the northwest tribal belt. The umbrella group of Islamist militia is blamed for most of the attacks that have killed more than 2,200 people in the country in two years.
The siege came after a suicide car bomb on Friday killed 52 civilians at a busy market in the northwest city of Peshawar.
Government ministers blamed that attack on the Taliban, who have vowed to avenge the death of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone missile attack in August and are keen to deter an assault on their stronghold.
The TTP also claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Monday on a UN office in Islamabad that killed five aid workers.
The military is wrapping up a fierce offensive against Taliban rebels in the northwestern Swat valley launched in April, with the army now poised to begin a similar assault in the nearby semi-autonomous tribal belt near Afghanistan.
Political and defence analyst Hasan Askari said the militant strikes showed the army had not broken the back of the Taliban, as they claim.
"This shows weaknesses in the security arrangements of the state agencies and the determination and commitment of the extremist Taliban," he told AFP.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion have carved out boltholes and training camps in the remote Pakistani mountains, with the TTP leadership also holed up in the rugged terrain.