By Jibran Ahmed
PESHAWAR Pakistan (Reuters) – Holed up deep inside a Taliban-friendly neighborhood, gunmen waited patiently for the passenger plane to approach the airport before raising their guns into the night sky and unleashing a hail of bullets to shoot it down.
Although only eight bullets hit the plane, one woman was killed and three crew members were wounded as the Airbus 310 plane carrying 178 passengers from Saudi Arabia landed in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Tuesday night.
Airline officials said the gunmen had aimed specifically at the highly flammable fuel tank as they sought to blow up the aircraft, as well as the cockpit, to kill the pilot.
“It would have been a disaster had they hit the fuel tank or cockpit,” said a senior Pakistan International Airlines official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.
It was the third incident of violence to affect Pakistan’s airports this month as international airlines review the safety of flying to a country with an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.
On June 8, a group of militants stormed Pakistan’s biggest airport in Karachi in a commando-style attack that prompted the army to start bombarding Taliban positions in tribal areas.
In the second incident, a passenger plane carrying an anti-government preacher was diverted at the last minute from Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore following violent clashes on the ground between his supporters and police.
The Civil Aviation Authority said all flights were suspended after the latest attack, but domestic flights resumed operations on Wednesday. International flights remained suspended.
“After last night’s attack, I don’t think international airlines would take the risk to come to Peshawar,” said a senior CAA official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Positioned outside the perimeter fence of the airport, militants opened fire on the plane roughly six minutes before it landed at Peshawar’s Bacha Khan International Airport.
The bullets came from the areas of Badhber and Mashukhel near Peshawar, which are considered insecure and full of Taliban supporters.
“The aircraft is very strong and can withstand pressure at 36,000 feet, but it’s surprising how easily the bullets penetrated the plane,” said one security official.
It was unclear what type of weapons the militants used. The security official said the bullets were of a larger calibre than those used by AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, the weapon of choice of most Taliban fighters.
The captain of the plane described his frantic efforts to land the aircraft safely as bullets whizzed by.
“I saw several bullets flashing towards the cockpit and fuel tank and tried to avoid them,” the senior PIA official quoted the captain as telling ground staff after landing the airplane.
“The cockpit and fuel tank were safe but eight bullets hit the right side of the plane, near the service door. The second engine, which was close to the fuel tank, was also hit.”
One bullet also hit one of the passengers, Matnoon Begum, striking her in the thigh and passing through her body before exiting though the throat. She died on the way to the hospital.
“Her nine-year-old daughter was sitting next to her, but she was all right,” the airline official said.
Police said they combed the area near the airport and arrested about 200 people in connection with the shooting. No one immediately claimed responsibility and the Taliban were not available for comment.
The attack came after the militants announced they would step up attacks against high-profile targets in Pakistan in response to the army’s military operation in the tribal areas.
The airline official added: “There are two options now: either stop night landings at the airport or close the airport for all types of operations due to security concerns. The federal government would make the decision in this regard.”
(Writing by Maria Golovnina)