RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Militants staged a deadly attack on the Pakistani army headquarters Saturday in the most audacious indication yet of their willingness to battle the government.
The attack amounted to a stunning security breach as the Pakistani military prepares what it says will be an all-out assault against militants in the Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
Pakistani commandos raided a building inside army headquarters early today and freed 25 people held hostage for more than 18 hours, a military spokesman said. Three captives and four militants were killed in the operation. A fifth attacker was taken into custody.
Up to five heavily armed militants took the hostages after they and about four other assailants attacked the main gate of the army headquarters on Saturday, killing six soldiers.
Analysts said the attack in this city just outside the capital, Islamabad, served as a warning by militants — whom Pakistan has been accused of nurturing — that the military must rethink its South Waziristan plans.
The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the Rawalpindi attack, according to Pakistani television.
Earlier this year, the Pakistani military rooted out Taliban forces that had taken over the Swat Valley, drawing praise from U.S. officials. After the Pakistani Taliban's leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed by a U.S. missile strike in August, some analysts speculated that the group had been considerably weakened.
But the group's new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, recently told Pakistani reporters that it would step up attacks in the face of the plans for South Waziristan.
The band of fighters caught military personnel off guard at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Dressed in fatigues and carrying assault weapons, they ambushed an outer checkpoint of the heavily fortified compound. A nearly hourlong gunbattle ensued, during which the militants lobbed grenades before rushing a more interior checkpoint, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Six military officials, including two high-ranking officers, were killed, as were four of the fighters, Abbas said.
The attack occurred one day after a suicide car bombing killed at least 49 people at a market in the northwestern city of Peshawar and five days after a Taliban suicide bombing at the U.N. World Food Program office in Islamabad killed five employees.
Just before dawn today, explosions and gunshots rang out as commandos moved into a building in the army complex, while a helicopter hovered above.
Abbas said the 25 who were freed included soldiers and civilians. Abbas said 20 of the hostages had been kept in a single room guarded by a militant wearing a suicide vest. He said troops shot him before he managed to detonate his explosives.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the siege had steeled the government's resolve to go through with the South Waziristan offensive, calling it "inevitable."
"We are going to come heavy on you," he warned the militants.
Information from the Washington Post and the Associated Press was used in this report.