By B. Raman
There is still confusion about the total number of terrorists involved in the daring commando-style attack on PNS Mehran, the headquarters of the Pakistani Naval Air Arm, located inside the Faisal base of the Pakistan Air Force at Karachi on the night of May 22, 2011. Mr. Rehman Malik, the Pakistani Interior Minister, had estimated the total number as six—of whom, according to him, two were killed in the fire-fight, two blew themselves up to escape capture and two managed to escape. However, in a report lodged with an adjoin8ing Police Station, the Navy has reportedly estimated the total number of terrorists involved as 10 to 12, of whom eight managed to escape.
Apart from the four terrorists, 10 others were also killed. These included one Naval Lieutenant, one naval rating, three members of a naval detachment of the Special Services Group (SSG), which is an inter-services group of specially-trained commandos, three members of the fire brigade and two from the Pakistani Rangers.
The terrorists entered the base from an adjoining residential area by climbing over the compound wall with ladders and cutting the barbed wire on top of it. They rushed to the hangars located about a KM from the wall without being detected by the search lights installed inside the base and blew up two of the three Orion P-3C aircraft and a helicopter parked there with the help of rocket-propelled grenades. About 15 members of a naval detachment of the SSG rushed to the spot and opened fire. The terrorists managed to reach a nearby tower and took shelter there. Thereafter, there was an intense fire-fight between the terrorists and the SSG detachment for nearly 17 hours before the SSG detachment managed to bring the situation under control with the help of reinforcements.
Considering that the entire operation lasted about 17 hours, the number of fatalities– particularly of naval personnel — was surprisingly low. The SSG and the Fire Brigade sustained more fatalities than the Navy. They were reportedly killed by gun fire from the terrorists as they were trying to put out the fire on the Orion planes.
The biggest damage suffered by the Navy was in respect of the two Orions. It had a holding of six, of which three are in the US for upgradation and are expected back only after November—one in December, one in June next year and one in December next year. Of the remaining three which were being used for maritime surveillance, two have been destroyed by the terrorists. Only one is available now. It is to be seen whether the US will rush to replace the two destroyed as the Pakistanis are hoping it would.
The destruction of the two Orions was targeted and not accidental. Even though the Orions, which are armed with Harpoon missiles, were acquired by the Pakistan Navy for use against India, they were currently being used to protect logistic shipments to the NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are unloaded at the Karachi port. Thus, the targeted destruction of the two Orions could have had the tactical objective of preventing their use for protecting the NATO logistic shipments.
The attempted attack on Chinese personnel accommodated inside the base, which was initially denied by the Chinese authorities, is since reported to have been admitted by them. Were the Chinese taken hostage by the terrorists? If so, how long were they in the custody of the terrorists? How were they ultimately got released? Answers to these questions are not available.
It has been reported that 11 Chinese were living inside the base. In addition, six Americans were working inside the base, but it is not known whether they were living inside the base or in hotels outside. From the fact that there were no reports of any of the Americans being taken hostage, one could infer that the Americans were probably living in a hotel and were not present in the base on the night of May 22 when the terrorists struck.
According to unconfirmed reports, the Americans were from the Lockheed Martin company, which has an on-going contract with the Pakistan Navy for the repair and maintenance of the Orion and the Chinese were from the Hudong Zhonghua Shipyard of Shanghai, which had supplied three F22P frigates to the Pakistan Navy and is presently helping the Navy in the construction of a fourth one in the Karachi dockyard. In January, well-informed Pakistani sources had reported the death of four Chinese personnel in a road accident near Karachi. It was not known whether they belonged to this company.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The TTP had in the past attacked Chinese personnel working in different parts of Pakistan and kidnapped some Chinese engineers working in the tribal areas. It has links with the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, an organization of Uighurs from the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang province.
Was there also an Uighur angle to the Mehran attack?