Gunmen take hostages in assault on army HQ

Pakistan's military says gunmen who attacked army headquarters in Rawalpindi earlier on Saturday have taken between 10 and 15 hostages. Four attackers and six soldiers were killed in the initial assault on the army compound.


AFP - Militants who tried to storm Pakistan's army headquarters Saturday have taken 10 to 15 hostages after a firefight that left six soldiers and four attackers dead, officials said.

At least six insurgents armed with automatic weapons and grenades drove up to the compound and shot their way through one checkpost in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, before being stopped by security forces at a second post.

Four militants were killed but at least two managed to flee during the fierce firefight, barricading themselves into a security office near the headquarters, as gunship helicopters circled overhead, the military said.

"There are more than two terrorists who have taken some security personnel as hostages. Efforts are under way for their safe recovery," the military's spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said on state-run television.

"Security forces have surrounded the terrorists. We are trying to recover the hostages safely," he added.

"According to our assessment the number of hostages is 10 to 15," Abbas later told private TV channel Geo.

"There could be four to five terrorists inside the building," he said.

The audacious attack in city adjoining the capital Islamabad unfolded just before midday, when the militants dressed in army uniforms hurled grenades and opened fire at an entrance to the heavily fortified army command centre.

"There were at least six attackers. Four were killed. Two have been traced and surrounded by the troops," said an official with the army's media wing.

The attack comes amid a surge in insurgent strikes, as analysts say the Islamist Taliban militia try to deter an army offensive into their tribal stronghold along the mountainous border with Afghanistan.

Abbas said in an earlier interview with Geo that the militants were dressed in army uniform and "were armed with sophisticated weapons and grenades."

"They came in a van and tried to enter from gate one to gate two in the sensitive area," he told the TV channel.

"Six soldiers were martyred in the attack," he added.

A security official requesting anonymity told AFP that a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel were among the dead.

The firefight came a day after a suicide car bomb killed 52 civilians at a busy market in the northwest city of Peshawar.

Government ministers blamed the suicide attack on the Taliban, who have vowed to avenge the death of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone missile attack in August.

Military officials blamed Saturday's siege on Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant movement based in the tribal belt and blamed for most the attacks which have killed more than 2,200 people here in two years.

An AFP journalist at the scene of the gunbattle reported that the firefight began just before midday and lasted about an hour and a half, with helicopters carrying the dead militants away after the battle ended.

Witnesses said that the militants hurled hand grenades, with one man saying five explosions rang out amid the gunfire.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani strongly condemned the attack, a brief statement issued by his office in Islamabad said, and met the army chief and president to discuss the security situation.

Police officials said that security had been beefed up in the capital Islamabad, which is close to Rawalpindi, amid fears of more insurgent strikes.

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.

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.

Several bomb blasts in Pakistan in the past two and a half weeks have killed dozens, with the Taliban threatening to unleash bigger assaults.

The TTP have already claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Monday on a UN office in Islamabad, which killed five aid workers.

There was a lull in bomb attacks after Baitullah Mehsud's death in an August 5 US drone strike, but analysts had warned that the new Taliban leadership would likely be keen to show their strength with fresh, dramatic strikes.

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