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Militants launch assault on Pakistani base

New York Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A team of heavily armed insurgents stormed a major Pakistani naval base in the southern city of Karachi late Sunday night, setting off a prolonged gunbattle with Pakistani security forces and, by some accounts, destroying a U.S.-made aircraft at the base.

The attack, which continued well into this morning, was the most significant against a Pakistani military facility since the takeover in 2009 of parts of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital. But in this case the insurgents, who were not identified, were reported to be well inside the naval base, where U.S.-supplied P-3C patrol aircraft and Harpoon antiship missiles are located, according to a classified cable sent to the State Department in October 2009.

Local television news networks broadcast images of an aircraft caught in flames and thick smoke billowing out of the naval base as gunfire echoed in the background. But from the images, it was difficult to tell what kind of damage had been done.

According to a naval spokesman, at least four members of the navy, including an officer and a sailor, were killed in the attack by 10 to 15 gunmen.

The attack seemed well-coordinated and was bound to revive questions of how the militants penetrated Naval Station Mehran, which the Pakistanis contend is a highly secure and guarded naval installation, about 6 miles from Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.

While an important base, it is far from the most vital military installation in the teeming city. About 15 miles away, near the Masroor Air Base, Pakistan is believed to keep a large depot for nuclear weapons that can be delivered from the air. There were no reports of attacks there.

President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attack on the base, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani ordered the interior minister to immediately travel to Karachi and oversee efforts to oust or kill the attackers.

Both officials have been under extraordinary pressure since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, largely because the U.S. attack on the bin Laden compound was not detected by Pakistan until the Navy SEAL team that conducted it was already flying out of the country.

Pakistani intelligence officials have said they were bracing for retaliatory attacks by militants sympathetic to bin Laden. But it was unclear whether that was the intent of this attack.