Pakistani commandos free 22 army hostages

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Pakistani commandos raided a building inside army headquarters early today and freed 22 people held hostage for more than 18 hours by Islamist militants, a military spokesman said. Three captives and four militants were killed in the operation.

Explosions and gunshots rang out as commandos moved into a building in the complex just before dawn, while a helicopter hovered overhead. Three ambulances were seen driving out of the heavily fortified base.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said "mopping up" operations were still under way, but it appeared the crisis was nearing its end.

Up to five heavily armed militants took the hostages after they and other assailants attacked the main gate of the army headquarters on Saturday, killing six soldiers in a brazen attack on one of the most powerful institutions in this nuclear-armed country.

No group claimed responsibility, but authorities said they were sure that the Pakistani Taliban or an allied Islamist militant group were behind it.

The strike appeared to be a warning to the military that its planned offensive on the insurgents' stronghold of South Waziristan along the Afghan border would be met with attacks against targets across Pakistan. Authorities said the siege had stiffened their resolve to go ahead with that operation.

Abbas said 20 of the hostages had been kept in a single room guarded by a militant wearing a suicide vest. He said troops shot him before he managed to detonate his explosives.

Abbas said the 22 who were freed included soldiers and civilians.

Pakistan has been hit by scores of attacks by militants over the past three years, with security forces a favorite target.

A police intelligence report obtained by the Associated Press on Saturday had warned in July that members of the Taliban along with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group based in the country's Punjab province, were planning to attack army headquarters after disguising themselves as soldiers. The report was given to the AP by an official in the home affairs ministry in Punjab's home department.