KAMRA - Islamist militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fought their way into one of Pakistan's largest air bases on Thursday, the air force said, in a brazen challenge to the nuclear-armed country's powerful military.
The attack was repelled and only one aircraft was damaged, said an air force spokesman, adding that the Minhas air base at Kamra, in central Punjab province, did not house nuclear weapons.
"No air base is a nuclear air base in Pakistan," he said.
The gun battle raged for hours, and eight militants and one soldier were killed, the spokesman said. Commandos were called in to reinforce and police armoured personnel carriers could be seen heading into the base.
Pakistan's Taliban movement, which is close to al Qaeda and seen as the biggest security threat to the South Asian nation, claimed responsibility for the assault.
"We are proud of this operation. Our leadership had decided to attack Kamra base a long time ago," Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The militants moved through a nearby village under cover of darkness and climbed a nine foot (2.7 meter) wall strung with barbed wire to break into the base, the air force spokesman said. Some were wearing military uniforms.
The assault cast doubts over official assertions that military operations had severely weakened militants waging a violent campaign to topple the U.S.-backed government and impose strict Islamic rule.
Security forces opened fire when militants strapped with suicide bombing vests approached aircraft hangars, prompting other militants to fire rocket-propelled grenades from outside the base's walls, said the air force spokesman.
Base commander Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, who led the operation against the attackers, was shot in the shoulder, but is in stable condition, said spokesman Captain Tariq Mahmood.
Search operations for any other militants who may have been hiding in the complex after the attack had ended, he said.
About an hour later, a series of small explosions could be heard as homemade bombs planted on the base by the militants were detonated by the military.
Minhas, 75 km (45 miles) northwest of Islamabad, is adjacent to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a major air force research and development centre. Pakistan manufactures JF-17 fighter planes, jointly developed with China, at the site.
Suicide bombers launched attacks near the base and the aeronautical complex in 2007 and 2009, but news reports said defences were not breached.