PESHAWAR: Pakistani police yesterday arrested hundreds of people after gunmen opened fire on a passenger plane during its landing approach, as fighter jets hit militant targets in the latest round of an anti-Taliban offensive.
The attack at Peshawar airport in the country’s northwest killed a woman passenger and wounded two crew and will raise further questions about aircraft safety in Pakistan.
The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight, landing in Peshawar from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, came under fire late Tuesday as it descended with more than 170 passengers on board.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but attention turned to the Pakistani Taliban, who have promised a bloody response to the army’s assault on their strongholds in North Waziristan.
Authorities said the Airbus A310 landed safely but a catastrophe was only narrowly avoided when it was hit by eight AK-47 bullets from the unidentified attackers.
PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said the plane was between 200 and 300 feet (60 to 100 metres) feet off the ground when it was hit.
“The shots were fired from outside the airport, one lady passenger and two stewards were wounded, the woman later died in the hospital,” Tajwar said.
Tajwar said the reason for the firing was not yet clear but the airline had not received any threats.
In response to the incident, Emirates cancelled a flight to Peshawar yesterday, while Air Arabia and Etihad Airways diverted planes to Islamabad.
Police conducted search operations through Peshawar and arrested “more than 200 suspects” in connection with the incident, according to senior police official Najeeb Ur Rehman.
“Police commandos and sniffer dogs are taking part in the operation that is still going on,” he added.
Mass arrests are common place in the aftermath of major terror incidents in Pakistan but most suspects are often let go quickly.
Police hailed the pilot for remaining calm and landing safely.
The attack came two weeks after a bloody raid on the international airport in the southern port city of Karachi that left dozens dead and sank a largely fruitless peace process with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific announced it was suspending flights to Pakistan from late June shortly after the all-night siege and after the Taliban warned foreign airlines to leave.
On Monday authorities diverted an Emirates flight carrying a prominent anti-government cleric and his supporters to the capital where they had planned to demonstrate against the government, raising further doubts about the security environment.
Pakistani air force jets hit suspected militant hideouts in the North Waziristan tribal district bordering Afghanistan yesterday in the 11th day of an offensive launched after the Karachi airport attack and aimed at eliminating Taliban strongholds.
The latest bombings hit targets in the Khushali Khel, Tori Khel and Khaisor areas of the district, killing 15 suspected militants and injuring seven, multiple security officials said.
The armed forces have used jet fighters, tanks and artillery to kill 361 people they have described as militants, although the number and identity of the victims are impossible to verify.