|Military helicopters fly over the entrance to Pakistan's army headquarters after an attack by armed men in Rawalpindi, located on the outskirts of Islamabad: Reuters|
Two of the attackers managed to infiltrate the heavily fortified compound in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, and troops were trying to flush them out hours after the initial assault, the military said. An Associated Press reporter at the scene heard four gunshots from inside the compound - long after an army spokesman said the situation was under control.
The audacious assault was the third major militant attack in Pakistan in a week and came as the government said it was planning an imminent offensive against Islamist militants in their strongholds in the rugged mountains along the border with Afghanistan.
It showed that the militants retain the ability to strike at the very heart of Pakistan's security apparatus despite recent military operations against their forces and the killing of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA drone attack in August. Pakistani media said the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the ongoing assaults strengthened the government's resolve to launch the offensive. "We have been left no other option except to go ahead to face them," he told Dawn television.
The attack began shortly before noon when the gunmen, dressed in camouflage military uniforms, drove in a white van up to the army compound and tried to force their way inside, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
The assailants shot at the guards at one checkpoint, killing some of them, and then jumped out of the van and ran toward a second checkpoint, he said. Abbas said the guards were likely confused by the attackers' uniforms.
The heavily armed attackers then took up positions throughout the area, hurling at least one grenade and firing sporadically at security forces, said a senior military official inside the compound. The official, who said top army officials were trapped in the compound during the assault, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. After a 45-minute gunfight, four of the attackers were killed, said Abbas, who told the private Geo news television channel the assault over and the situation "under full control." But more than an hour later, gunshots rang out from the compound, and Abbas confirmed that two more gunmen had eluded security forces and slipped into the headquarters compound in Rawalpindi. The city, adjacent to the capital of Islamabad, is filled with security checkpoints and police roadblocks.
Troops were closing in on the men, he said.
Abbas said six troops were killed and five wounded, one critically. An intelligence official said eight soldiers were killed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Khan Bahadur, a shuttle van driver, was standing outside the gate of the compound when the white van pulled up, and shooting erupted. "There was fierce firing, and then there was a blast. Soldiers were running here and there," he said. "The firing continued for about a half-hour. There was smoke everywhere. Then there was a break, and then firing again."
The gunbattle was the latest in a string of attacks on Pakistani cities, following a car bombing that killed 49 on Friday in the northwestern city of Peshawar and the bombing of a U.N. aid agency Monday that killed five in Islamabad. The man who attacked the U.N. was also wearing a security forces' uniform and was granted entry to the compound after asking to use the bathroom.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which appeared to be a message to the army that the militants intend to ramp up their strikes across the country in response to the government's planned offensive against Taliban strongholds in the border region of South Waziristan.
Pakistan vowed on Friday to launch the new offensive in the wake of the massive Peshawar bombing.
The United States has been pushing Pakistan to take strong action against insurgents using its soil as a base for attacks in Afghanistan. The assault could be risky for the army, which was beaten back on three previous offensives into the Taliban heartland. But the army may have been emboldened by its successes against the militants in the Swat Valley and by the killing of Baitullah Mehsud.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the militants had left the government "no other option" but to hit back. "We will have to proceed," he told a local television station Friday. "All roads are leading to South Waziristan."
Islamist militants have been carrying out nearly weekly attacks in Pakistan, but the sheer scale of Friday's bombing _ which killed nine children - pushed the government to declare it would take the fight to the lawless tribal belt along the border where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden may be hiding.