Bloody Hostage Drama At Pakistan Army Headquarters
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
In Pakistan, commandos staged an assault under cover of darkness to end a hostage drama at the nation's army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The operation freed 39 hostages, but three others were killed. The commandos killed four of the captors believed to be Taliban militants. The raid ended an ordeal, which kept one of the country's most sensitive military installations in a precarious state for 18 hours.
NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Islamabad. And, Julie, describe what happened in the early morning local time to free the hostages.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, you know, an explosion and gunfire ring out across this army compound as this raid got underway at 6 a.m. local time here. And this high wire hostage taking that began yesterday, when militants who dressed up in military uniforms fired their way past an army headquarters checkpoint. This was all over by 9:30 this morning.
The hostages were taken after the militants fled a firefight earlier with soldiers near a main gate that killed five of their comrades and six army personnel. The hostages were reportedly herded into one room where a militant wearing a suicide jacket stood guard. He was shot dead in the raid.
HANSEN: So, what kind of reaction to this attack have you heard? I mean, this was right on the doorstep of Pakistan's army command.
MCCARTHY: Exactly. In some ways, I think one of the - Dawn newspaper - the largest English-language, summed up in its editorial today what many might be feeling. And they said the message is this: If the army headquarters is vulnerable, no one is safe. Then there's the question of how vulnerable the nuclear arsenal is if one of the most sensitive installations in the country, the army headquarters, is susceptible to hostage takers.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repudiated any suggestion today and said the military was aggressively pursuing the militancy. But Taliban gunmen firing in broad daylight at Pakistan's military power center does raise questions about how vulnerable Pakistan really is. In addition, security officers were aware of threats. So, was this a security lapse?
HANSEN: So, is the army getting criticized?
MCCARTHY: You know, Liane, interestingly, no. The general feeling is that the attack was symbolic, aimed at demoralizing the public that supports the army. And the response to the raid has been laudatory, in fact, it's been patriotic. But the entire episode calls into question this assertion by the army that the militants are on the run.
HANSEN: So, this attack seems very well-planned. What do you know about the attackers?
MCCARTHY: Well, the sole surviving militant is also believed to be the ringleader. He's a Taliban commander that security officials say is part of the notorious Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group. He's evidently helped militants who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. He reportedly draws his support among militants from the Punjab province where the authorities spoke today about a crackdown.
Though the army's been preparing a long-awaited operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan along the Afghan border, now, was this the Taliban's last gasp before they are attacked in their stronghold? Or is it a signal that Pakistan is in for a long haul with this militancy that's shown itself to be highly organized, highly motivated and extremely lethal?
HANSEN: Good questions. NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad. Thank you, Julie.
MCCARTHY: Thanks, Liane.
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