KARACHI // Pakistani commandos regained control of a naval base yesterday from a team of Taliban militants who had attacked then occupied the high-security facility for 18 hours, dealing a bloody blow to the military.
The attackers destroyed at least two US-supplied surveillance planes and killed 10 security officers.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault in the city of Karachi. The militants said it was revenge for the American raid on May 2 that killed the al Qa'eda chief, Osama bin Laden, and the insurgents were under orders to fight until the death.
"They do not want to come out alive, they have gone there to embrace martyrdom," said spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan.
Between 10 and 15 insurgents armed with grenades, rockets and automatic weapons stormed Naval Station Mehran late on Sunday before splitting into smaller groups, setting off explosions and hiding in the sprawling facility.
Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, said yesterday that 17 foreigners, 11 of them Chinese maintenance workers, were recovered safely from the base after it came under attack. "There were 17 foreigners and I want to make it clear, no one was taken hostage," he told reporters.
"They were shifted from the base. They included 11 Chinese. All our guests are safe," he said.
Six Americans on the base at the time of the attack escaped unharmed, the US Embassy said.
The raid was one of the most audacious in years of militant violence in Pakistan. The insurgent's ability to penetrate the facility rattled a military establishment already embarrassed by the unilateral American raid on bin Laden, and raised the possibility they had inside help.
It will also likely lead to more questions over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In 2009, Islamist terrorists stormed army headquarters close to the capital, holding hostages for 22 hours. But unlike the attack Sunday in Karachi, the attackers then failed to deeply penetrate the complex.
By yesterday afternoon, navy spokesman Irfan ul Haq said: "Thanks be to God, the base is cleared and the operation is over." But he declined to say how many militants had been killed. Commandos leaving the complex flashed victory signs to reporters.
This is the third major attack the Taliban have claimed since the bin Laden killing. The others were a car bombing that slightly injured American consulate workers in the north-west city of Peshawar and a twin-suicide attack that killed about 90 Pakistani paramilitary police recruits.
Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, condemned the attack, saying such a "cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism".
The raid began with at least three loud explosions, which were heard by people who live around the naval air station.
It was unclear what caused the explosions, but they set off raging fires that could be seen from far in the distance.
Authorities sent in several dozen navy and police commandos to battle the attackers, who responded with gunfire and grenades. At least two P-3C Orions, maritime surveillance aircraft given to Pakistan by the US were destroyed, he said. The US Navy puts the cost of the planes at $36 million (Dh132.2m) each.
The United States handed over two Orions to the Pakistani navy at a ceremony at the base in June 2010 attended by 250 Pakistani and American officials, according to the website of the US Central Command. It said by late 2012, Pakistan would have eight of the planes.