Tariq Chaudhry had little time to react when a storm of bullets headed straight toward him as he piloted a Pakistan International Airlines Corp. plane with about 200 people aboard toward the runway in Peshawar two days ago.
“I could see the volley of bullets coming and passing right and left of the plane’s cockpit,” Chaudhry, a pilot with 25 years of experience, said by phone yesterday, estimating that as many as 80 shots were fired at the Airbus SAS A310 at the Pakistani airport. “The hail of fire was so powerful that it was not possible to turn the plane left or right.”
Once he landed the plane, Chaudhry helped the three on board who were hit, including a Pakistani woman, Maqnoon Begum, who later died. He counted 13 bullet holes in the plane, which was en route from Saudi Arabia, and found metal casings for 7.62-caliber bullets commonly used in AK-47 assault rifles.
It’s Pakistan’s second airport attack in a month. Two weeks ago, Taliban fighters killed 26 people at Karachi’s international airport and warned foreign investors, airlines and multinational companies to cut business ties with Pakistan.
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Chaudhry said he always turns off the plane’s main lights when landing in Peshawar, a city of 3.5 million people that has been a main battleground in an insurgency that has killed 50,000 people in Pakistan since 2001. The bullets came while the plane was 1,000 feet off the ground, he said.
“Only the lights in the cabin and navigation lights were on, which gave the attackers a fair idea where the plane was,” he said. “We would’ve been sitting ducks if all the main lights of the plane were on.”
State-run PIA condemned the shooting, which injured two flight attendants, and lauded Chaudhry for safely landing the aircraft. The company said in a statement that it will maintain its flight schedules and employees “will not be held back due to this type of deplorable incident.”
Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways PJSC and Air Arabia PJSC suspended flights to Peshawar on Tuesday because of the security situation, according to statements from the airlines. FlyDubai flights to Pakistan will continue as normal, a spokeswoman said by phone.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways said earlier this month it would cease flights to Karachi on June 28 because of “commercial reasons.” Malaysian Airlines. stopped flying to Pakistan two years ago, while Singapore Airlines halted flights to the country in 2009. No European, U.S., Australian, Indian or Japanese carriers fly to Pakistan.
“If a trend emerges that the new focus is to go after airports, airlines and international airlines, then obviously companies will have to review the situation,” said Huma Yusuf, senior Pakistan analyst at Control Risks in London. “It’s too soon to tell whether these were targeted or opportunistic attacks,” she said, adding that the Taliban have long focused on striking state security forces and government infrastructure.
Police detained 200 people after the bullets were fired from a “thickly populated area,” Najeeb-ur-Rehman, the city’s senior superintendent of police, said by phone. The attack took place at around 11 p.m. local time.
“There was a threat that they would attack the airport,” Najeeb-ur-Rehman said, referring to militants in the area. Firing at a plane while it was in the air was the “easiest way” to strike because police had tightened security at the airport, he said.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.