Hostages freed after army HQ siege

RAWALPINDI: Three hostages and four militants were killed early Sunday as Pakistani troops stormed a building to end an almost 20-hour siege outside army headquarters near Islamabad, officials said.

At least 25 people had been snatched by suspected Taliban gunmen, who tried to storm the nuclear-armed nation's military command centre in the garrison city of Rawalpindi before barricading themselves in an office just outside.

The attack at the heart of Pakistan's military establishment had already left four militants and six soldiers dead, and comes as Taliban attacks surge ahead of an army operation into their stronghold along the Afghan border.

"Twenty-five hostages have been freed. Three hostages and four terrorists were killed in the rescue operation," military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP. "Clearance operations are going on."

"Security forces entered the building. There was resistance and an exchange of fire," he also told the private TV channel Geo.

An AFP reporter at the scene heard two explosions and gunshots at about 6:00 am (0000 GMT) Sunday, after soldiers spent the night surrounding the building. Military ambulances were moving about inside army headquarters.

The drama unfolded just before midday on Saturday, when up to 10 Taliban gunmen in military uniform and armed with automatic weapons and grenades drove up to the compound and shot their way through one checkpost at the HQ.

Four militants and six soldiers were killed near a second post but the rest of the rebels fled during the fierce firefight, barricading themselves into a nearby office with the hostages, who were "security personnel," Abbas said earlier.

A security official requesting anonymity told AFP that a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel were among the dead, while intelligence officials at the scene said the hostages included high-ranking military personnel.

The hostages were held in a building linked to the military headquarters near the second checkpost in the city adjoining the capital Islamabad.

Overnight, soldiers perched at the ready on nearby rooftops, with all the lights blacked out in military and civilian buildings within one kilometre (half a mile) of the army headquarters.

In London, visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the attack underlined the extremist threat in Pakistan.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and other officials immediately pointed the finger at the Taliban.

"The Taliban are hired assassins. They are the enemies of Islam and Pakistan. All their actions are against the sovereignty of Pakistan," he said on a local television station.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) movement is based in the northwest tribal belt. The umbrella group of Islamist militia is blamed for most the attacks which have killed more than 2,200 people in the country in two years.

The firefight Saturday came a day after a suicide car bomb killed 52 civilians at a busy market in the northwest city of Peshawar.

Government ministers blamed that suicide attack on the Taliban, who have vowed to avenge the death of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone missile attack in August and are keen to deter an assault on their stronghold.

The TTP claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Monday on a UN office in Islamabad which killed five aid workers.

The military is wrapping up a fierce offensive against Taliban rebels in the northwestern Swat valley launched in April, with the army now poised to begin a similar assault in the nearby semi-autonomous tribal belt.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels who fled Afghanistan after the 2001 US-led invasion have carved out boltholes and training camps in the remote Pakistani mountains, with the TTP leadership also holed up in the rugged terrain.

There was a lull in bomb attacks after Baitullah Mehsud's death in an August 5 US drone strike, but analysts had warned that the new Taliban leadership would likely be keen to show their strength with fresh, dramatic strikes.