Taliban gunmen kill 29 in Pakistan air force base attack

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Pakistan air force base death toll rises to 29

Peshawar (Pakistan) (AFP) - Pakistani Taliban attacked an air force base in the country's restive northwest Friday, killing at least 29 people, most of them soldiers, in their deadliest assault in months following a major military offensive against them.

The military said up to 14 insurgents entered the residential compound at the base near Peshawar, the gateway to the tribal regions that have long been a haven for militants, dressed in official uniforms.

Soldiers battled the attackers over several hours and killed all of them, chief military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa told a press conference.

"At least 29 people have been martyred -- 23 from air force, three from army and three civilians," Bajwa said.

Some of the militants were able to attack a mosque within the camp compound and killed 16 air force personnel as they were about to offer dawn prayers, Bajwa said and added that another seven air force personnel, in a barrack adjacent to mosque when were doing ablution, were also killed by attackers.

Separately an army captain and two soldiers were killed in fighting with the insurgents, he said.

Bajwa said that the attackers belonged to a splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and came from Afghanistan.

"The attackers came from Afghanistan, the attack was planned and controlled from there," Bajwa said.

It is the deadliest attack in Pakistan since December when Taliban killed 150 people, most of them children, at an army-run school in Peshawar and also deadliest attack on a Pakistani military facility since 2009, when the Taliban laid siege to army headquarters in Rawalpindi, killing 22 people.

The TTP claimed responsibility for Friday's attack in an e-mail sent to journalists, saying their "suicide unit" carried out the attack.

- 'Horrifying' fighting -

The air force has played a key role in the operation against militant hideouts in the tribal areas on the Afghan borders, pounding targets in countless sorties since the onslaught began in June last year.

The TTP said their fighters had "targeted air force officers who are on the frontline... raining fire and iron" on them.

The attack on the Badaber base, 10 kilometres (six miles) south of Peshawar, triggered fierce gunbattles.

The head of the local bomb disposal unit, Shafqat Malik, said that as well as automatic rifles, the attackers were armed with grenades and small homemade bombs.

Photos tweeted by Bajwa showed what appeared to be seven heavily armed militants lying dead, several of them in pools of blood.

After the attack the camp was spattered with blood and scarred with bullet holes, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, while in the mosque pieces of flesh littered the floor.

Security officials told AFP that as people were praying, the militants -- disguised in uniforms -- came and herded them into a corner, telling them the base was under attack and they should huddle for safety.

Once they were assembled, the gunmen opened fire, mowing them down in cold blood with automatic rifles, the officials said.

A senior PAF official told AFP the facility attacked on Friday was a residential camp for air force personnel.

"There are no air assets including combat aircraft deployed at the base," he said, requesting anonymity.

Bajwa said there were also technical and administration blocks at Badaber.

- Taliban still determined -

The tribal badlands that lie just a short drive from Peshawar have been the scene of a major military offensive against Taliban and other militants over the past year.

The army launched the "Zarb-e-Azb" operation in June 2014 in a bid to wipe out militant bases in North Waziristan tribal area and so bring an end to the bloody decade-long Islamist insurgency that has cost Pakistan thousands of lives.

The army intensified its offensive after the Peshawar school attack and since then there has been something of a lull in violence. The last major attack in the city came in February when three heavily armed Taliban militants stormed a Shiite mosque, killing 21 people.

While the military offensive appears to have disrupted the TTP's network, Friday's attack shows they are still determined to carry on their fight against the state with audacious assaults on high-profile targets.

A TTP faction last month claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed the home minister of Punjab province along with 15 other people.