PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani security forces cornered the last members of a group of Taliban militants who staged a deadly raid on an airport in the country's troubled northwest, and all five died in the ensuing Sunday firefight, officials said.
Three were shot by the security forces and two others blew themselves up in the nearby village where they had holed up, the officials said. Another five of the militants who attacked the military side of the international airport in Peshawar city on Saturday night with rockets and car bombs were killed during the assault. Four civilians also died and over 40 people were wounded in the initial attack, and a policeman was killed in the final gun battle.
Peshawar is on the edge of Pakistan's tribal region, the main sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country. The city has frequently been attacked in the past few years, but Saturday was the first strike against the airport, which is jointly used by the air force and civilian authorities.
The airport is the third major military base attacked by the Taliban in roughly the past 18 months, a sign of the militant group's continued strength despite multiple army offensives targeting their tribal sanctuary.
The militants killed Sunday were hiding in an unfinished house in Pawaka village, located about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the airport, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Three of the militants were shot by security forces when they tried to escape, said Hussain. Both he and the military said the two other militants detonated their suicide vests when security forces stormed the building. One policeman was killed and another wounded in the firefight, said Hussain.
All five militants were Uzbeks, said military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The Taliban have been known to cooperate with militants from Uzbekistan in the past.
It's unclear whether the five militants killed Saturday night were locals or foreigners.
The 10 Taliban militants began their attack on the airport Saturday by firing rockets at the wall that surrounds the installation and then detonating two car bombs to try to break through, said the air force. The militants, some of whom were wearing suicide vests, were also armed with rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, automatic weapons and bags of explosives.
None of the militants were able to enter the airport, said the air force. No air force equipment was damaged and no personnel were injured, the service said.
The civilians who were killed and wounded during the attack were from neighborhoods located next to the airport, said local hospital official Umar Ayub. It's unclear if the casualties were caused by the rockets and bombs used by the militants, or if the civilians were caught in the crossfire when security forces responded to the attack.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attack by telephone to The Associated Press. He said the attack was carried out by 10 militants, some of whom were killed.
Authorities knew that some of the militants escaped, and police intelligence traced them to Pawaka village Saturday night, said Hussain, the information minister. But action was not taken immediately because of the darkness, he said.
Laborers who were working on the house where the militants holed up informed police when they showed up for work Sunday morning and found armed men there, said Hussain. Witness statements suggest that four of the militants were foreigners, possibly Uzbeks or Chechens, he said.
The militants asked local residents for shawls to disguise themselves and a car to help them escape, an eyewitness told local Geo TV. He did not provide his name.
Police took two people into custody in the village on suspicion of helping the militants after the operation was over, said Peshawar police chief Imtiaz Altaf.
The airport in Peshawar, which was closed after the attack Saturday night, reopened on Sunday, said Hussain, the information minister.
The two other major military bases attacked by the Pakistani Taliban in the last 18 months include Kamra air base near the capital, Islamabad, and Mehran naval air base in the southern city of Karachi.
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.