KARACHI, Pakistan -- Pakistani commandos recaptured a major naval base from Taliban attackers yesterday after a bloody and humiliating 18-hour standoff that raised questions about militant infiltration in the security services and the safety of the volatile country's nuclear warheads.
The unusually brazen assault, which the Taliban said was to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden, was a reminder that the Pakistanis are catching blame from both sides in the aftermath of the May 2 raid by U.S. commandos.
While Americans have accused elements in the Pakistani security services of having sheltered bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad, the Taliban and al-Qaida fault the army for cooperating with the Americans. It was the third purported revenge strike in Pakistan since bin Laden's death.
After initially estimating that 15 insurgents were involved in the attack that began late Sunday in the country's commercial capital, Karachi, officials said just six heavily armed, black-clad assailants penetrated the heart of the Naval Station Mehran after cutting through wire in a quiet section of its eastern perimeter.
The militants destroyed two U.S.-supplied surveillance aircraft and killed at least five navy officers, two paramilitary rangers and three firefighters. Six Americans and 11 Chinese aviation engineers escaped unharmed, authorities said.
Four attackers were killed -- one apparently blew himself up -- but two managed to escape, said Pakistan Navy chief Nauman Bashir.
After blowing up the aircraft, causing huge fires that lit up the night sky and sent black smoke above the city of 18 million people, the insurgents inside the base managed to evade death or capture into yesterday by splitting up and firing on marines and commandos sent to catch them.
Toward early afternoon, the militants were holed up in an office building as navy helicopters flew over the base, and snipers were seen on a runway control tower. A final crack of automatic weapon fire rang out, and the navy soon declared victory.
"Thanks be to God, the base is cleared and the operation is over," said navy spokesman Irfan ul Haq.