ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani commandos staged a dramatic rescue early Sunday of colleagues held hostage after terrorists had stormed the headquarters of Pakistan's vast military establishment some 18 hours earlier in a bold assault.
The maneuver, carried out around 6 a.m. local time, ended a crisis that began when the extremists attacked the military central command in the northern city of Rawalpindi, initially killing six army personnel, then taking hostages in a stand-off that lasted through the night.
The rescue operation freed 25 hostages who were being held in a building inside the headquarters by a suicide bomber, who was shot dead.
"They were in a room with a terrorist who was wearing a suicide jacket, but the commandoes acted promptly and gunned him down before he could pull the trigger," said the army's chief spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.
Three hostages died in the rescue, while two commandoes also died. Four of the five terrorists were killed, said Abbas.
It was the third major terrorist attack to hit Pakistan in six days, and likely was a warning from Pakistani Taliban of the bloodshed that will ensue from the country's planned Washington-backed military offensive in the Waziristan region, the base of country's extremism and an important refuge for insurgents fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.
While other recent attacks resulted in more bloodshed, the target on Saturday was deeply symbolic for a country dominated by its armed forces.
"It's a very, very serious blow to the Pakistani security forces. The symbol of our military might has been attacked," said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "They 1/8the terrorists3/8 wanted to send a strong message that they can strike at will."
Pakistan is reckoned to be the base of al-Qaida, which has commandeered as its foot soldiers the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack on the military headquarters. The Pakistani Taliban appears to have regrouped following the assassination of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in early August by a U.S. missile attack.
The government and the military have repeatedly stated in recent days that an offensive in Waziristan was imminent, a forewarning to the extremists that some believe was unwise.
"What happened in Peshawar, Islamabad and today 1/8in Rawalpindi3/8, all roads lead to South Waziristan," said Interior Minister Rehman Malik. "The TTP (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) is behind all of these attacks, and now the government has no other option but to launch an offensive."
The Pakistani military has staged multiple operations in South Waziristan since 2004, but each time the engagement has been halted, leaving the Taliban in a stronger position. Given this track record and an enduring belief that the military still see jihadists as some sort of strategic asset for use in Afghanistan and India, many remain skeptical whether the army has the resolve to mount a full-scale offensive in Waziristan.
Pakistan has been hit by an Islamic insurrection since summer 2007, seeing dozens of suicide attacks, as well as commando-style raids, leading to concerns that the nuclear-armed nation could be thrown into chaos.
A little before noon Saturday, terrorists dressed in military uniform and traveling in a van mounted a daring gun and grenade attack on the entrance to the general headquarters of the Pakistani military, with a brigadier general and a lieutenant colonel among the six army dead. Four terrorists were killed. The attackers fought their way past the first gate and were stopped at the second insider gate in a firefight that lasted about 45 minutes.
The remaining assailants then seemed to disappear for several hours before they emerged inside the security office of the headquarters compound, holding 10 to 15 hostages, including military personnel and civilian employees of the army, according to the army's chief spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas. He said that the attackers were armed with guns and explosives.
"We're facing an extraordinary situation. It's a very difficult hostage situation.... The building is surrounded," said Abbas. "We hope to save as many lives as possible."
The garrison city of Rawalpindi, about 30 minutes' drive from the capital Islamabad, is ringed by checkpoints and should be one of the best-protected places in the country. The military headquarters is located in the city center, on a huge well-guarded campus.
Police raided a house Saturday on the outskirts of Islamabad, where the assailants are thought to have lived for several weeks or even months while preparing the attack.
On Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a United Nations building in Islamabad, while a car bomb on Friday in the north western city of Peshawar killed 49 people.
In April this year, the Pakistani military launched an operation against Taliban militants who had come within 60 miles of Islamabad, largely eliminating them. But the core of religious extremism lies in South Waziristan, a lawless region on the border with Afghanistan, from where al-Qaida and the Taliban direct attacks across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West.
Earlier this year, two gun assaults against the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy demonstrated the extremists' military-like capability. Similarly, jihadists from Pakistan staged a devastating gun attack on Mumbai in late 2007.
The armed assaults appear to show that the Taliban, based in the northwest, is working closely with well-trained extremists from more established groups operating from the country's heartland Punjab province.
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