Fire illuminates the sky above the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi where security forces fought with attackers Sunday in Pakistan. (Fareed Khan / AP)
KARACHI, PAKISTAN — The Pakistani Taliban on Monday claimed responsibility for a brazen five-hour assault on the country’s busiest airport that saw gunmen disguised as police guards storm the international terminal in Karachi, set off explosions and kill 18 people.
The Taliban said the assault on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province, was in revenge for the killing last November of the militant group’s leader in a U.S. drone strike.
The claim further diminished prospects for a resumption of government-led peace talks with the Taliban. Those talks floundered in recent weeks and the Taliban have called off a cease-fire they declared during negotiations. Since then, Pakistani troops have carried out airstrikes in the country’s troubled northwest to target militant hideouts, killing dozens of suspected militants. Residents claim several civilians were also killed in the strikes.
The Karachi assault started late Sunday when 10 gunmen, at least some disguised as policemen, opened fire with machine-guns and rocket launchers, triggering a gunbattle with police during which all the attackers were killed, said Rizwan Akhtar, the chief of Pakistan’s elite paramilitary Rangers.
Heavy gunfire and multiple explosions were heard coming from the terminal, used for VIP flights and cargo, as militants and security forces battled for control. A major fire rose from the airport, illuminating the night sky in an orange glow as the silhouettes of jets could be seen. As dawn broke Monday, smoke could still be seen billowing in the air.
Authorities diverted incoming flights and suspended all flight operations.
An Emirates flight in Karachi bound for Dubai had to be cancelled and passengers were escorted off the plane because of the fighting.
“The passengers and crew disembarked the aircraft and were taken to a secure area of the terminal,” the Dubai-based carrier said. It didn’t say how many passengers were onboard.
The airline is by far the Middle East’s biggest and operates multiple daily flights to Karachi and other Pakistani cities. It said the airport’s closure would continue to affect other flights into Karachi. Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, said Monday it was delaying its own flights to Karachi and would monitor the situation.
Akhtar said no planes were damaged during the attack but a cargo building was left completely gutted by the fire and the explosions.
Just before dawn, Pakistani security forces regained full control of the airport. Akhtar said some of the attackers appeared to be Uzbeks but officials were still investigating to determine their identity and nationality.
“The terrorists entered the terminal in two groups. They were foreigners, and some of them seemed to be Uzbeks,” Akthar said.
The Civil Aviation Authority said security forces had given them back control of the airport.
Dr. Seemi Jamali from Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital said 18 bodies were brought to the morgue, and 11 of them were of airport security personnel. The bodies of the attackers remained in police custody.
At least some of the gunmen wore the uniform of the Airport Security Force, said an official at the scene near the terminal. All the attackers wore explosives vests, some of which were detonated when they were shot at by the police, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
After storming into the airport grounds, gunmen hunkered down for the shootout with police in two sections of the airport, said senior police officer Ghulam Qadir Thebo. Local news channels reported that intermittent gunfire could still be heard on Monday morning, though it was not clear what the source of that shooting was.
The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said the attack was to avenge the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban chief who died in a drone strike last November.
Shahid, who speaks for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan as the Pakistani Taliban are known, said the attack on the Karachi airport had been all planned out before the peace talks started and was put on hold during the negotiations.
He also warned of more attacks to come.
Security officials in Karachi had feared that if the peace talks broke down, their city would be a likely spot for militant retribution.
The Pakistani Taliban and their allies increasingly are gaining a foothold in Karachi, the country’s largest city and the site of frequent militant attacks in the past. It is the country’s economic hub and any militant activity targeting its airport would likely strike a heavy blow to foreign investment in the country.
In May 2011, militants waged an 18-hour siege at a naval base in Karachi, killing 10 people in an assault that deeply embarrassed the armed forces.
Associated Press Writers Rebecca Santana, Zarar Khan, Munir Ahmed and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.