Mass Pakistan arrests after gunmen fire at landing plane

Pakistan army soldiers sort relief goods for the internally displaced civilians, fleeing the military operation against militants of North Waziristan region, at a warehouse in Karachi on June 25, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Rizwan TABASSUM

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Pakistani police arrested hundreds of people Wednesday after gunmen opened fire on a passenger plane during its landing approach, as fighter jets hit militant targets in the latest round of an anti-Taliban offensive.

The attack at Peshawar airport in the country’s northwest killed a female passenger and wounded two crew, and will raise further questions about aircraft safety in Pakistan.

The Pakistan International Airlines flight, landing in Peshawar from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, came under fire late Tuesday as it descended with more than 170 passengers on board.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but attention turned to the Pakistani Taliban, who has promised a bloody response to the army’s assault on their strongholds in the northwestern tribal area of North Waziristan.

The attack came two weeks after a raid on the international airport in the southern city of Karachi that left dozens dead and sank a largely fruitless peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

In Peshawar, authorities said the Airbus A310 landed safely but only narrowly avoided catastrophe when it was hit by eight AK-47 bullets from unidentified attackers.

PIA spokesman Mashhood Tajwar said the plane was between 60 to 100 meters off the ground when it was hit.

“The shots were fired from outside the airport. One lady passenger and two stewards were wounded. The woman later died in the hospital,” Tajwar told AFP.

Tajwar said the reason for the gunfire was not yet clear, but the airline had not received any threats.

In response to the attack, Emirates Airlines suspended all flights to Peshawar until further notice, while Air Arabia and Etihad Airways diverted planes to Islamabad.

Police conducted search operations across Peshawar and arrested “more than 200 suspects” in connection with the incident, according to senior police official Najeeb Ur Rehman.

“Police commandos and sniffer dogs are taking part in the operation that is still going on,” he added.

Mass arrests are commonplace in the aftermath of major terror incidents in Pakistan but most suspects are often let go quickly.

Police hailed the pilot for remaining calm and landing safely.

After the all-night siege at Karachi airport two weeks ago, and with the Taliban warning foreign companies to leave, Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific announced it was suspending flights to Pakistan from late June.

Monday authorities diverted an Emirates flight carrying a prominent anti-government cleric and his supporters to the capital where they had planned to demonstrate against the government, raising further doubts about the security environment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 26, 2014, on page 11.




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