Militants' attack raises fears of nuclear arsenal safety

By Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad and James Boxell in London

Financial Times

12 October 2009

The US and Britain tried to bolster confidence in Pakistan's ability to retain control of its nuclear arsenal yesterday in the wake of an audacious weekend attack by suspected Taliban militants on the headquarters of the country's army - previously described as impregnable.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the attack on the base in Rawalpindi, close to the capital Islamabad, offered "another reminder that extremists . . . are increasingly threatening the authority of the state". But she added: "We see no evidence they are going to take over."

Her comments, after a meeting with David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, came as army commandos regained control of the base in a pre-dawn raid. At least four of the attackers, three hostages and two commandos were killed as the military moved in.

Attackers in army uniforms struck at the headquarters in Rawalpindi on Saturday. The strike was the third big assault in a week - after bombs in Islamabad and Peshawar - in an apparent campaign to deter a planned army offensive against Taliban strongholds in the Waziristan region along the Afghan border. It is likely to embarrass Pakistan after a recent series of setbacks for the militants in the northern Swat valley led the government to claim it was winning the battle against the Islamist group.

The strike will also alarm western powers that have been applying pressure on Islamabad to deal with the Islamist threat. During the battle to retake control of Swat, Pakistani leaders faced concerns from the west over militants coming precariously close to some known nuclear locations.

Mr Miliband said: "In respect of the nuclear issue, there is no evidence that has been shown publicly or privately of any threat to the Pakistani nuclear facilities." He said: "It is very important that alarmist talk is not allowed to gather pace."

Pakistan declared itself a nuclear power in 1998 when it carried out its first tests, just three weeks after India conducted its own.

Since then, Pakistan's powerful army has built up a number of safeguards surrounding the country's nuclear facilities.

After the weekend attack, Pakistani leaders said they remained on course to launch a military campaign in Waziristan, from where Taliban militants are believed to have planned and carried out a number of attacks.

"A campaign in Waziristan is imminent," said Rehman Malik, the interior minister, speaking to the Financial Times from Singapore last night.

"We are left with no other option but to go for an all-out operation. All roads in resolving this challenge of militancy lead to Waziristan."