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Attack In Pakistan Puts Government On Defense


In Pakistan last night, Taliban militants attacked an air base near the capital. The attack came amid reported preparations for a Pakistani military offensive. The target of that offensive: the militants' hideouts along the border with Afghanistan.

NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Islamabad.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Nine Taliban men in army uniforms and suicide belts battled Pakistani troops for more than two hours, killing of security official before being gunned down themselves.

The Kamra Air Base, less than an hour's drive from the capital, has its fighter jets, and one aircraft was damaged. The base may also be home to part of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, though officials won't confirm where any warheads are kept.

That the Taliban might capture such dangerous weapons has long been on U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's mind, as he told reporters at the Pentagon this week.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: The great danger we've always feared is that if terrorism is not controlled in their country, that those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

FRAYER: Pakistan has come under U.S. criticism for failing to act forcefully against extremists. But securing nuclear facilities is the one thing officials here have done, says Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. Hours after the air base assault, authorities arrested more than 70 suspects in and around the capital. But the big challenge, Masood says, is for Pakistani troops to go on the offensive and attack militants in their sanctuaries along the Afghan border.

TALAT MASOOD: These attacks show that how important it is that we must clear our sanctuaries, because if you would clear our sanctuaries, then they would be weakened at their very root.

FRAYER: Pakistani forces are said to be preparing an offensive in the North Waziristan, home to Taliban fighters and members of the shadowy Haqqani Network, an Al-Qaida linked group that's attacked U.S. and Afghan troops across the border.

Masood says he expects a bloody battle this fall.

MASOOD: These people are very hardened fighters and some of them apparently have nowhere to go, so they'll fight to the end.

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.