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October 12, 2009

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Pakistani commandos swoop to end deadly hostage drama

PAKISTANI commandos freed dozens of hostages held by militants at the army's own headquarters in Rawalpindi yesterday, ending a bloody, 22-hour drama that embarrassed the nation's military as it plans a new offensive against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
At least 19 people died in the standoff, including three captives and eight of the militants, who wore army fatigues in the audacious assault, authorities said.
The rescue operation began before dawn yesterday, freeing 42 hostages, the military said. One attacker, described as the militants' ringleader, was captured.
The attack on the nerve center of the army showed the strength of insurgents allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban despite military operations and United States missile strikes that have battered their ranks. It was the third major attack in Pakistan in a week.
The government said the siege only steeled its resolve to go through with an offensive in South Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border and a militant stronghold.
A leading analyst said the militants' ability to invade the heavily guarded army headquarters, even securing uniforms, was evidence they may have infiltrated the security forces.
At the very least, the analyst said, it showed that the army was constantly forced to be defensive.
"The question is, when do they get ahead of the curve where they can actually be in preventative mode?" said Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with Stratfor, a US-based global intelligence firm.
Five heavily armed militants took the hostages after they and about four other assailants attacked the headquarters' main gate on Saturday, killing six soldiers, including a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel.
The gunmen arrived in a white van that reportedly had army license plates.
No group claimed responsibility, but authorities said they were sure the Pakistani Taliban or an allied Islamist militant group were behind the strike.
The garrison city of Rawalpindi, just a few kilometers from Islamabad, is filled with security checkpoints and police roadblocks.
Explosions and shots rang out yesterday as commandos moved into the complex, while a helicopter hovered.
Three ambulances were seen driving out of the heavily fortified base close to Islamabad.
Two hours after the raid to retake the compound began, two new explosions were heard. The army said it was "mopping up" the remaining insurgents at the compound.
The hostages included soldiers and civilians.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said 20 hostages were kept in a room guarded by a militant wearing a suicide vest who was shot and killed before he managed to detonate his explosives.
At least 19 people died - six soldiers, two commandos, eight militant attackers and three captives - and several were wounded.
The final hostage-taker was caught as he wounded himself by setting off explosives, Abbas said.
The captured man was identified as Aqeel, alias "Dr Usman," and described as "the leader of this group."
The name matched that of a militant suspected of orchestrating an attack in Lahore this year on Sri Lanka's visiting cricket team, police officials said.
The weekend siege followed a car bombing that killed 53 on Friday in Peshawar and the bombing of a United Nations aid agency last Monday that killed five in Islamabad.


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