- Associated Press - Thursday, August 16, 2012

KAMRA, Pakistan — Heavily armed Taliban fighters blasted their way into a Pakistani air force base with possible links to the country’s nuclear program in a brazen assault that took two hours of fighting to put down, leaving a security officer and nine insurgents dead and underscoring the group’s continued threat despite numerous military offensives.

Hours later, Taliban gunmen in northern Pakistan forced 20 Shiite Muslims off buses, lined them up and killed them, the latest in a series of sectarian attacks that the government has seemingly done little to stop.

The separate incidents emphasize two daunting challenges the nuclear-armed country faces. The Pakistani Taliban continue to pose a potent threat despite numerous military offensives against their sanctuaries along the Afghan border. At the same time, sectarian violence plagues the Sunni majority country where Shiite Muslims often feel under attack.

While the Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of bombings and other attacks, raids against military bases are somewhat uncommon. The group’s spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, said they carried out Thursday’s pre-dawn attack as revenge for the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike in 2009 and the American commando raid that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last year.

The large Air Force Base Minhas, located only about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Islamabad, hosts fighter jets, including F-16s, and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems.

The weapons development and the presence of jets that could be used to deploy nuclear bombs have raised suspicions among some experts that the base is linked to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. However, no firm evidence has emerged, since the secrecy of the nuclear program makes independent evaluation difficult. The Pakistani military denies any connection between the base and the program.

The safety of the country’s nuclear weapons has been a major concern for the United States. Western experts say Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is expanding its arsenal.

“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,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Pentagon reporters Tuesday.

But many experts argue that the possibility of militants being able to battle their way inside a Pakistani facility and make out with a nuclear weapon or parts is extremely remote.

“There’s a lot of talk about the loose nukes and the security of the Pakistani nukes but this isn’t something that the Pakistani state is going to take lightly. This is one of their most prized possessions,” Kamran Bokhari, from the global intelligence firm, Stratfor.

The Pakistani Taliban and its allies have waged a bloody insurgency against the government that has killed over 30,000 people. The military says its forces are stretched think battling the group — one reason, it says, it has not been able to do more against other militants in the country, particularly those attacking U.S. and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military has told the U.S. it plans to launch an offensive for the first time in North Waziristan, a militant stronghold on the border with Afghanistan. The campaign will aim to uproot the Pakistani Taliban but is expected to avoid tackling other militants involved in the Afghan war.

Thursday’s attack came at around 2 a.m., when Taliban militants opened a barrage of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades at the base, according to the air force. Some of them were also wearing explosives strapped to their bodies, it said.

At least one of the rockets hit a hangar and damaged one of the aircraft parked inside, said air force spokesman Tariq Mahmood.

The attackers then scaled the wall surrounding the air base and an intense firefight ensued.

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