Gunmen disguised as airport security workers attack Karachi's airport
Fuel blazes and heavy machine-gun fire add to confusion at scene
28 people are killed in the attack; another 24 are injured, officials say
As the night wore on, the buildings at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport stood out, silhouetted against a backdrop of oily, orange blazes, the night air punctuated with the unmistakable chatter of machine-gun fire.
We arrived on the scene shortly after the Taliban-claimed attack began on the country’s largest airport on Sunday night, which left 28 dead – including 10 attackers – and 24 injured.
The airport, located off the city’s main arterial Shahrah-e-Faisal road, had already been sealed off by Pakistan Rangers, a heavily-armed paramilitary force. A number of vehicles – both emergency and military – lined the route in.
We watched hundreds more rangers pouring in on the back of pickup trucks, guns mounted on top of each one.
Even by the time the media had assembled at the scene, it was apparent things were far from settled. There was a commotion of people around the airport as gun battles still raged nearby, while thick plumes of black smoke drifted high into the sky as what smelled like aviation fuel burned.
The gunmen had targeted Terminal 1, the old terminal that had fallen out of regular use. This terminal is only ever used for people flying to and from pilgrimages, for private flights, or sometimes government flights. The gunmen may have chosen this part of the airport as an infiltration point because it is largely vacant.
The attackers were trying to cut through barbed wire to get into the airport when they were spotted by Airport Security Force personnel (ASF). A heavy gun battle ensued and four ASF members were killed – the first fatalities of the attack.
The terrorists apparently divided into two groups and hid in two different hangars near the terminal building. One was a hangar run by the national carrier, Pakistan International Airways (PIA), and the other to the right – where the thick black smoke plumed up before their eyes – was a large hangar, known as the Ispahani hangar, which is used for wide-body aircraft maintenance.
Police said one gunman detonated a suicide vest after being cornered in one of the hangars that contained fuel.
By the early hours of Monday morning, senior government officials had made the VIP area of the terminal building their makeshift command center. We’d just finished an interview with the chief minister of Sindh province, Qaim Ali Shah, when a group of senior military and police chiefs walked in looking very confident.
They shook hands with the chief minister and declared that the militants had been killed. There was a quiet a moment of relief among everyone in the room.
By contrast, we witnessed a disheveled group of airport workers leaving the building shortly after, their clothes soiled and torn. Most would not talk to the media, saying they were too traumatized to discuss their ordeal. But one older man described how the gunmen ran towards him and his colleagues and started shooting. He said they ran and hid in the toilet. While they were in there, he said they heard what they thought was a bomb. Though they feared the roof would collapse on them, they stayed hidden there for hours until soldiers arrived and told them it was safe to come out.
The eyewitness, who asked not to be named, said some of the assailants were disguised as airport security workers, something that was later corroborated by Sindh Security Unit’s (SSU) Mohammed Waqar. He said others were dressed in black as airport security force commandos.