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Pakistani Militants Assault Base Where Nuclear Weapons May be Stored

Police commandos wait to enter Pakistan’s Minhas air force installation on Thursday. Militants launched an attack on Thursday against the base believed to house a portion of the Pakistani atomic arsenal (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash). Police commandos wait to enter Pakistan’s Minhas air force installation on Thursday. Militants launched an attack on Thursday against the base believed to house a portion of the Pakistani atomic arsenal (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash).

Extremists on Thursday carried out an assault on a key Pakistani military site that is believed to house nuclear arms, the New York Times reported (see GSN, May 23, 2011).

Pakistani authorities fought the heavily armed assailants for several hours in the early morning at the Minhas air force installation in the Punjab province, Pakistani television reports stated.

The air base is thought to house a portion of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile, which is presently estimated at between 90 and 110 warheads (see GSN, Aug. 9).

Pakistani insurgents have struck the air force site on three prior occasions in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The Express Tribune last week cited intelligence officers as saying the Pakistani Taliban was anticipated to launch an assault on an air force installation not far from Lahore before the Id-al-Fitr holiday expected next Monday (Declan Walsh, New York Times, Aug. 15).

Ex-Pakistani army Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah denied that nuclear weapons are stored at Minhas. "Nuclear assets management is totally a separate issue and is being dealt with separately," he told the Washington Post. "No nuclear arsenals are being kept in the known places, such as the air or naval bases or military [containment] areas."

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan, in an interview with the Post, said his organization had carried out the Thursday strike on Minhas as retribution for recent Pakistani military strikes on his organization.

While the Pakistani air force said the nine gunmen who carried out the Thursday strike had all been killed, Ahsan claimed there were only four attackers. One Pakistani military official was also killed.

The militants seemed to have good intelligence about the layout of Minhas and the surrounding land, according to Shah. "It's not the work of half-educated Taliban militants, but the handiwork of al-Qaida planners" (Shaiq Hussain, Washington Post, Aug. 16).

The security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has long been a worry of the international community. The United States officially maintains it has faith in the Pakistani security establishment's stated ability to protect its atomic arsenal from attack or diversion by terrorists.

"The great danger that we've always feared is that if terrorism is not controlled in their country, then those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands," the Press Trust of India quoted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying to journalists on Tuesday.

"When I talk to the Pakistanis, I've always stressed the fact that we should have common cause with regards to confronting terrorism; that terrorists not only represent a threat to our country, terrorism represents a real threat to their country as well," the Pentagon chief said.

"A lot of Pakistanis have died as a result of terrorism. A lot of members of their military have died as a result of terrorism," Panetta said. "And it's important for them to recognize that threat and to act against that threat. And in particular, it's important because they are a nuclear power" (Press Trust of India/Times of India, Aug. 15).

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