KARACHI: Thirty people were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle Monday with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport, and it emerged up to seven workers could still be trapped in cold-storage facilities.
The assault has left Pakistan’s nascent peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in tatters as officials in the country’s northwest reported that some 25,000 had fled the restive North Waziristan tribal district in the past 48 hours, fearing a long-awaited ground offensive.
Ten militants were among the dead in the assault on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, officials said, as Pakistan’s biggest city witnessed a return of the kind of offensive waged before by the TTP during an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.
Late Monday, families of seven airport workers blocked Karachi’s main road demanding that authorities work toward freeing their relatives who were trapped in cold-storage facilities to escape the carnage.
“We are looking into this and according to the families, some seven people were trapped inside the cold storage and were in contact with the families on cell phone,” said Abid Qaimkhani, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority.
The attack began just before midnight Sunday. At around dawn, the military said that all 10 of the attackers had been killed.
Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniforms, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three detonated their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.
The bodies of the 18 victims of the Taliban assault – including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines – were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded were being treated, a hospital official said.
The charred remains of two CAA employees were later recovered Monday night, bringing the toll up to 30.
PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no passengers were involved.
The TTP said the brazen attack on the airport was its latest revenge for its late leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in November.
TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the Pakistani government had used peace talks as a ruse and promised more attacks to come in retaliation against recent airstrikes in the areas bordering Afghanistan.
A statement later issued by the group said the targets were selected “to have minimum public loss and maximum loss of government personnel,” implying the TTP had not planned to attack any planes.
In the restive North Waziristan tribal district some 1,000 kilometers north of Karachi, residents and officials said 58,000 people, mainly women and children had fled the area for the northwest, fearing a long-awaited offensive was imminent.
The exodus has increased rapidly, with more than 25,000 fleeing their homes in the last 48 hours alone, a government official in Peshawar said.
The latest rumors of an operation began after government talks with the TTP broke down in April and were further stoked the distribution of a leaflet from a local warlord last week warning residents they should leave their homes by June 10.