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Taliban attack on airport highlights fragile Karachi security

June 9, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House condemned a deadly attack overnight by the Pakistani Taliban at their country’s busiest airport.

As John Sparks of Independent Television News report, the group’s assault and fighting with government forces left dozens dead.

JOHN SPARKS: Just before midnight, clouds of smoke rose above the international airport. And there was gunfire too.

It was clear that something had gone terribly wrong in Karachi. Fiery scenes were captured by the country’s tireless news channels. Heavily harmed insurgents from the Pakistan Taliban had stormed the airport. According to their spokesman, they wanted to hijack a plane, and seek revenge for the death of their leader in a drone strike.

It was a well-planned attack. The militants dressed as airport security, evading checkpoints on the perimeter, then fought their way into terminal one. Officials said they approached a number of aircraft as well.

“It’s a cowardly act by the terrorists,” said this police chief. Karachi hosts Pakistan’s biggest and busiest airport; 43,000 people pass through the main passenger hub every day. Yet the militants targeted a different part of the facility. They infiltrated via a side entrance here. Then a van dropped them off at terminal one. It’s now used for cargo and VIPs.

As the gun battle raged, the authorities evacuated the airport and canceled incoming flights. But that wasn’t all. Troops had to get passengers off a number of aircraft that were sitting on the tarmac.

Saim Rizvi was one of them. He used Twitter to express himself, cursing, then adding: “They fire rocket launchers. May God protect the country and passengers on board, as well as on the floor.”  A few minutes later, he tweeted: “We’re going to be off-loaded soon. Commandos are on the plane. Long live the Pakistan army.”

The battle for Jinnah International was over by sunrise. Military officials said they’d killed the insurgents, 10 in all. Another 16 had also lost their lives. A long convoy took their bodies away.

Local residents looked on in alarm.

“The firing was so intense, I thought war had broken out between India and Pakistan,” said this man.

The authorities were quick to congratulate themselves. Captured weapons were displayed for all to see, including several suicide vests packed with explosives.

“We did a tremendous job,” said this regional cabinet minister.

But the attack highlights the fragile sense of security here. The sprawling city of Karachi has long been used by militants as a place to hide and organize. And a recent attempt by the government to negotiate with them has failed.

Officials said the airport would soon reopen. But few will feel completely secure. Pakistan faces a brazen foe prepared to fight to the death.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the official death toll climbed to 29 killed, including the 10 attackers.