A brazen Taliban attack on a Pakistani military base on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar killed scores of people on Friday. The attack was a major blow for Pakistan's military, which stepped up operations against the militants following a horrific Taliban attack last December at a Peshawar school that killed 150 people, mostly children.
Death tolls were not immediately clear. At least 20 were initially believed killed in the attack, and security forces reported as many as 43 dead. Among the dead were 16 people at a mosque inside the compound, but it remained unclear whether they were civilians or military personnel.
Three guards employed with the air force and an army captain were also killed, officials said.
The attackers first stormed the guard room of the Badaber base, according to air force officials. The base was established in 1960s as an air force facility, but has mostly been used as a residential place for air force employees and officers from Peshawar.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said 13 attackers were killed by the security forces. He said that the attack was quickly repulsed, and that the bodies of the slain "terrorists" were lying on the ground in the base compound.
Details were sketchy about how the Taliban managed to make their way into the mosque, which is inside the compound walls, and gun down 16 people during prayers.
Bajwa said that the attackers entered the base from different directions in a two-pronged assault — apparently one push targeted the mosque — but that security forces quickly responded.
It was also unclear if any of the attackers got away.
"All the terrorists were wearing explosives-laden jackets and were armed with hand-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47 rifles," a military official at the base, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.
One of the wounded security officials, Mohammad Rizwan, said he was coming out of the mosque when he was hit by a bullet.
"I fell down and I saw some of the attackers, but I don't know what happened later, I fell unconscious," he said.
Shortly after the attack, a suspected U.S. drone strike hit a home in the South Waziristan tribal region, south of Peshawar, killing at least three fighters and wounding five, according to two Pakistani security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Earlier, in Tweets posted on social media, Bajwa said the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, rushed to Peshawar and met with the security forces taking part in the clearing operation. He said Sharif will visit a military hospital where doctors were treating soldiers wounded in the attack.
A rescue officer said his crew transported at least 20 wounded to hospitals in the area. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, said there were no immediate reports of women or children among the wounded.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Mohamad Khurasani, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement to the media, he said 14 Taliban fighters were involved in the assault. They offered "safe passage" to women and children after attacking the base, Khurasani said. He added that the Taliban "targeted" 50 security forces, without explaining what that meant.
Pakistani TV footage showed army helicopters hovering near the base, as police and troops surrounded the area.
Local police officer Shahid Khan Bangash said a large explosion was heard as the Taliban fighters first tried to storm the base. "We are hearing that the attackers were armed with guns and rockets," he said. Bangash said the attackers threw grenades at the guard room but were unable to enter the main area of the base.
Later in the morning, he said the firing had stopped and a search operation for fighters who might still be hiding in the area was under way.
Air force chief Sohail Aman had briefed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the attack, the air force said.
Friday's attack came a day after Pakistan reported the arrest of a Taliban figure behind a recent failed attempt to target an air force facility in Kamra, also in the northwest of the country. Counter-terrorism officer Junaid Khan in the southern port city of Karachi, where the raid took place, identified the suspect as Umar Hayat and said he was being questioned.
On Thursday, the Pakistani police in Karachi also reported the arrest of another prominent suspect, Syed Sheaba Ahmad, a former air force pilot who allegedly helped finance al-Qaida's newly formed South Asian affiliate.
The Pakistan air force has been playing an important role in the fight against Taliban fighters since June 2014, when the army launched the much-awaited operation in North Waziristan, a restive tribal area along the Afghanistan border. Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders the tribal area. The air force frequently target Taliban hideouts in the tribal area and elsewhere.
The army says it has killed more than 3,000 Taliban so far in the North Waziristan offensive. The region was once considered to be the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban who have been targeting security forces and public places in an effort to topple the elected government to enforce harsher version of Islam.
Al Jazeera and wire services