x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Terror on Karachi runway: Emirates passenger recounts being caught in Taliban crossfire

There was 'extreme panic' when a huge explosion and automatic gunfire forced the pilot to turn the Dubai-bound plane around as it was taxiing down the runway, recounts a Karachi businessman on-board flight EK 603.

Fire illuminates the sky above the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi where security forces fought off Pakistani Taliban attackers on the night of June 8, 2014, in Pakistan. Gunmen disguised as police guards attacked a terminal with machine guns and a rocket launcher during a five-hour siege that killed at least 37 people. Fareed Khan/AP Photo
Fire illuminates the sky above the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi where security forces fought off Pakistani Taliban attackers on the night of June 8, 2014, in Pakistan. Gunmen disguised as police guards attacked a terminal with machine guns and a rocket launcher during a five-hour siege that killed at least 37 people. Fareed Khan/AP Photo

Karachi // Atif Chaudhry was settling in for the short trip from Karachi to Dubai as Emirates flight 603 taxied down the runway on Sunday night.

“Then we heard a huge explosion and extensive firing,” the 36-year-old businessman and Karachi resident said. The panicked passengers strained to see what was happening outside. “I was watching the flames and the smoke at the old terminal” when the pilots stopped the plane and quickly turned it around and headed away from the fire, he said.

As the plane rolled back towards the main terminal, there was “extreme panic inside the plane”, Mr Chaudhry said. The automatic gunfire intensified and he and other passengers worried the bullets might pierce the fuel-filled plane.

Amid the chaos outside, Mr Chaudhry and his fellow passengers did not yet know that 10 Pakistani Taliban terrorists had infiltrated an old terminal a mile down the runway, likely set on hijacking a plane and wreaking as much damage as possible on the country’s largest airport.

The Emirates flight was one of four planes guided to a terminal on the far end of the airstrip, away from the fire and fighting.

There, the plane was boarded by a commander of the airport security force (ASF) named Shakeel. The cabin door was immediately closed again and no one allowed to leave, Mr Chaudhry said.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777-300ER with a capacity of more than 400, was almost full, he said.

“For almost an hour everyone was in a panic and trying to contact their families,” Mr Chaudhry said. Pakistani media were reporting wildly varying and unconfirmed accounts of the airport assault, including that a plane had been hijacked.

He reassured his wife and was himself consoled by the voice of his daughter over the phone. The aircraft’s air conditioning remained on and the crew did their best to take care of the frightened passengers, “providing everything we needed”, he said.

But as the sounds of warfare outside continued, and the flaming petrol depot that the terrorists had set on fire burned brighter, passengers began to fear their plane might be hijacked, he said.

“The most dangerous thing that I and many other passengers noted was how exposed the plane was, just sitting at the terminal,” Mr Chaudhry said. “We were watching outside through our windows but we did not see a single security personnel near our plane. We did not even see any security personnel on the plane’s cameras”, which continued to operate.

A senior politician from the Muttahida Quami Movement party, Farooq Sattar, happened to be on the flight, and people crowded around his seat as he took calls from the chief minister of Sindh province to get updates on the situation. Finally, at 1.45am, over two hours after their ordeal began, ASF guards took up position on the airplane’s wing, and army vehicles arrived on the runway nearby.

Forty-five minutes later, the cabin door was opened and the passengers were led off the plane by security personnel. “I felt like I had been freed from jail,” Mr Chaudhry said.

The fight with the militants raged on as the passengers sat in an airport lounge. At 5am the security forces announced they had killed all the attackers, but the passengers were allowed to leave only at 7.30 after collecting their luggage.

“I picked up my 10-months baby daughter, Rania, when I reached home,” Mr Chaudhry said. “It was like getting another life.”

foreign.desk@thenational.se