After an 18-hour tense standoff, elite commandos of the Pakistan Army stormed a building at the military’s headquarters early on Sunday, freeing as many as 39 people who had been taken hostage by militants during an audacious attack the previous day.
Three other hostages and four militants were killed, while one militant, described as the “ringleader” was captured alive, the military said.
Two Special Services Group commandos were killed in the rescue operation, while six soldiers died in a gun battle with the militants as the attack began on Saturday.
The military, caught unawares by the attack at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, which was thought to be one of the best-guarded places in the country and a symbol of the Pakistan Army’s power, recovered on Sunday to declare that it had carried out a “successful” operation.
Fighter jets of the Pakistan military also carried out a series of air-strikes in South Waziristan. According to Geo TV, at least 13 militants were killed in the raids.
But, along with the palpable relief that the saga had finally ended, questions remained about how the militants, who were dressed in military uniforms, got as far as they did, crossing two security checkpoints to take over a building close to the GHQ’s gates.
According to some reports, the building housed offices of the Military Intelligence, but the military said these were “security offices.”
Despite the safe rescue of most of the hostages, the attack on the nerve-centre of the military establishment is being seen in Pakistan as a hugely embarrassing intelligence and security failure.
The rescue operation began at 6 a.m. in the morning. Explosions were heard along with intermittent firing. Major-General Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, said the focus of the operations was to eliminate a suicide bomber who had gathered 33 hostages around him.
“The most damaging could have been this suicide bomber, who was putting on his jacket, if he had blown himself up,” said Major-General Abbas.
“The whole operation revolved around the elimination of this terrorist before he could blow himself up, and. Alhamdulillah, the security forces were successful in eliminating him before he [did this].”
Three hostages, two of them civilians and two commandos were killed during the rescue.
After this, one militant remained untraced until two hours later, when security forces found him holed up in another room along with nine more hostages. He was captured as he tried to kill himself and the others around him with an explosive, and at 9.30 a.m., the military declared that the operation had ended and all militants and hostages accounted for.
The military identified the captured militant as Aqeel, a Taliban commander with links to the Harkat-ul Ansar, now a disbanded Kashmir jihadi group. He is also wanted for the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year and assassination attempts on the former President, Pervez Musharraf, in 2004.