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Battle as gunmen attack airport

Gunmen disguised as police guards stormed an airport terminal used for VIPs and cargo in Pakistan's largest city tonight, killing at least nine people as explosions echoed into the night.

Meanwhile, suicide bombers in south-western Pakistan killed 23 Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran in a separate incident, underscoring how fragile security is Pakistan.

The airport attack was continuing at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, although officials said all the passengers had been evacuated.

Heavy gunfire and at least two large explosions could be heard coming from the terminal as authorities scrambled to secure the area.

Dr Seemi Jamali of Jinnah Hospital in Karachi said nine bodies had been brought so far to the hospital from the fighting. She said seven were from the Airport Security Force, an arm of the country's police, one was an employee of the Civil Aviation Authority and another from the state-run Pakistan International Airlines.

A major fire rose from the airport, with the silhouette of jets seen.

The attack happened at a terminal not generally used for commercial flights but for special VIP flights and for cargo.

"I was working at my office when I heard big blasts - several blasts - and then there were heavy gunshots," Sarmad Hussain, a PIA employee, said after escaping the building. He said he and a colleague jumped out of a window to get away, and his colleague broke his leg.

When Mr Hussain came out of the building, he said he saw smoke billowing from the terminal.

Shaukat Jamal, a spokesman for the Airport Security Force, said army commandos confined the attackers to a maintenance area, and that they had not been able to get on to the tarmac.

An official who spoke to journalists near the airport said at least some of the militants were wearing Airport Security Force uniforms and all were strapped with explosives.

He said one of them tried to capture a vehicle used by the Civil Aviation Authority and when a guard shot at him, the explosives strapped to his body went off. The official said another attacker was also blown up after being shot at by security forces.

He said he had seen the bodies of three attackers and that an additional three or four attackers were believed to be alive.

The military said all the passengers had been evacuated and three gunmen had been killed.

At least two domestic flights have been diverted and all flight operations had been suspended at the airport. A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said the airport would be closed until at least tomorrow night.

Karachi is Pakistan's largest city and has been the site of frequent militant attacks in the past. It is the country's economic heart and any militant activity targeting the airport likely would strike a heavy blow at foreign investment in the country.

In May 2011, militants waged an 18-hour siege at a naval base in Karachi, killing 10 people in an assault that deeply embarrassed its armed forces.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for tonight's attack. Pakistan's government has been trying to negotiate a peace deal with local Taliban fighters and other militants mostly based in the north west who have been waging war against the government. But the talks have had little success, raising fears of a backlash of attacks across the country.

Security officials in Karachi had feared that if the talks broke down, their city would be a likely spot for militant groups to strike back as the Pakistani Taliban and their allies increasingly have gained a foothold in the city in recent years.

In the suicide bombing, four bombers targeted Shiite pilgrims staying at a hotel in the town of Tuftan near the Iranian border. One bomber was killed by security officials travelling with the pilgrims, but the other three managed to get inside the hotel where they blew themselves up in an attack that also wounded 10 people.

It was not immediately clear whether there was a connection between the airport assault and the Baluchistan attack.

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