PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Suspected Taliban militants launched a brazen attack on a Pakistani military base on Friday, killing 29 people including 16 who were gunned down inside a mosque during prayers. The Pakistani army quickly blamed militants from neighboring Afghanistan, which Islamabad routinely accuses of harboring terrorists who launch attacks across their porous border.
The attack was a major blow to Pakistan's military, which had stepped up operations against militants following a horrific Taliban attack last December at a Peshawar school that killed 150 people, mostly children. It also underscored the ability of the militants to stage spectacular attacks on targets linked to the country's military and government.
All 13 attackers were killed after an hours-long firefight at the Badaber base on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar, army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said. In addition to the dead, another 29 people were wounded.
More than 2,000 employees were on the base at the time of the attack, Bajwa said. The attackers first stormed the guard room and then tried to move toward its administrative block, but were stopped by security forces, he said.
The base was established in 1960s but in recent years has mostly been used as a residence for air force employees and officers from Peshawar.
Bajwa said the assault was quickly repulsed because of timely and coordinated action by security forces. He told reporters in Peshawar that "the attackers came from Afghanistan," though he stressed he did not mean that the government in Kabul was behind the assault.
Intercepted communications indicated that the attackers were being handled by superiors in Afghanistan, he said, but would not elaborate further because Pakistan's spy agency was investigating the evidence. It was also possible that the attackers were assisted by someone on the inside, he added.
There was no immediate response from Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Mohamad Khurasani, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement to the media, he said 14 Taliban fighters were involved in the assault. They offered "safe passage" to women and children after attacking the base, Khurasani said. He added that the Taliban "targeted" 50 security forces, without explaining what that meant.
The Pakistani Taliban also released a video in which militant leader Khalifa Umar Mansoor is seen sitting among the alleged attackers. He said he was in charge of the attack and that the purpose was to avenge Pakistani military bombardment of mosques and the killing of civilians in tribal regions, as well as the humiliation of seminary students in cities.
He said the attack was ordered by Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban whom Pakistan says is hiding in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants Kabul to arrest Fazlullah as he is accused of numerous of acts of terrorism in Pakistan.
Independent Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain said Pakistan and Afghanistan should work together to eliminate militants, who were their common enemy. "I think both Pakistan and Afghanistan should act against militants without indulging in any blame game as there will be no end to it," he said.
A wounded security official, Mohammad Rizwan, said he was coming out of the mosque when he was hit by a bullet. Another victim, Akram Ullah, said from his hospital bed that he was inside the mosque and remembered seeing a gunman with a grenade enter the building.
Shortly after the attack, a suspected U.S. drone strike hit a home in the South Waziristan tribal region, south of Peshawar, killing at least three militants and wounding five, according to two Pakistani security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, rushed to Peshawar and attended some of the funerals of the victims. According to Muslim tradition, the deceased are buried as soon as possible.
Pakistani TV footage showed army helicopters hovering near the base, as police and troops surrounded the area.
Friday's attack came a day after Pakistan reported the arrest of a militant figure behind a recent failed attempt to target an air force facility in Kamra, also in Pakistan's northwest. The suspect, Umar Hayat, was currently being questioned, said counterterrorism officer Junaid Khan in the southern port city of Karachi, where the arrest took place.
Also Thursday, police in Karachi reported the arrest of Syed Sheaba Ahmad, a former air force pilot who allegedly helped finance al-Qaida's newly formed South Asian affiliate.
The Pakistan air force has been playing an important role in the fight against militants since June 2014, when the army launched a much-awaited operation in North Waziristan, a restive tribal area along the Afghanistan border. Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders the tribal area. The air force frequently targets militant hideouts in the tribal area and elsewhere.
The army says it has killed more than 3,000 militants so far in the North Waziristan offensive. The region was once considered to be the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban, which has been targeting security forces and public places in an effort to topple the elected government to enforce a harsher version of Islam.
Zarar Khan reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad also contributed to this report.