ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A militant raid early Thursday on a northern Pakistan air force base with suspected links to the country's nuclear weapons program has renewed questions about Islamabad's ability to safeguard its nuclear arsenal in the face of an insurgency that shows no signs of waning.
A team of eight militants climbed over a perimeter wall at the base in Kamra, about 25 miles northwest of Islamabad, and exchanged gunfire with Pakistani security forces for more than two hours, said air force spokesman Tariq Mahmood. All eight attackers were eventually shot to death, but not before they fatally shot a Pakistani security officer and damaged an aircraft with a rocket-propelled grenade, officials said.
The base at Kamra abuts the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, which assembles fighter jets and other weapons systems, and is a major research hub for the country's air force. Experts have long believed that the compound at Kamra is also used to store some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, though the military has always denied this.
"Questions will be raised about nuclear weapons -- though the militants were stopped, they entered a high security area and kept security forces engaged for more than two hours," said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "That means the government of Pakistan and the military will have to address the lapses and weaknesses that exist in their security systems."
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was aimed at avenging the 2009 U.S. drone missile attack that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud, as well as last year's U.S. commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In recent years, the Pakistani Taliban, the country's homegrown insurgency, has been responsible for waves of suicide bombings and other terror attacks on military installations as well as markets, mosques and other civilian targets.
The attack on the base began at about 2 a.m. The militants, wearing explosives-filled suicide vests and armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, were fired on shortly after clambering over the wall and were unable to reach any of the base's hangars, Mahmood said. The base's commander, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, was shot in the shoulder but was not critically injured. Security forces later found two homemade bombs that the attackers had brought into the compound but were unable to detonate, officials said.
Pakistani authorities touted the deaths of the militants as ample evidence of the country's ability to keep its military installations secure. "Everyone did what they were supposed to do," Defense Minister Naveed Qamar told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday. "The security forces challenged the militants and eliminated them."
Nevertheless, the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal remains a major concern for the U.S., given the continued presence of Al Qaeda and other allied militant groups in the country's volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border. U.S. experts say Pakistan is expanding its arsenal, which is estimated to number about 100 nuclear weapons.
"The great danger we've always feared is that if terrorism is not controlled in their country, then those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday.
Pakistan's history of militant attacks on military and security facilities has reinforced Western fears about Islamabad's ability to secure its nuclear program. The base at Kamra has been the scene of two previous attacks, one in 2009 when a suicide bomber on a bicycle killed seven people at a checkpoint outside the base, and the other in 2007, when a suicide bomber injured five children on a Pakistani air force bus as they were heading to a school near the base.
Last year, a team of militants scaled the perimeter wall of a naval base in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and launched a 17-hour siege on the compound that killed 10 Pakistani security personnel and destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime surveillance aircraft. In October 2009, militants stormed the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and took hostages, setting off a 22-hour standoff that ended in the deaths of 23 people, including nine militants.