TALIBAN militants have attacked a Pakistani airforce base with suspected links to the country’s nuclear program.

The attack on Thursday on the base in Kamra, about 40km northwest of Islamabad, left one security guard and nine attackers dead.

The large air base hosts a variety of fighter jets, including F-16s, and contains a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems.

Some experts suspect the base could be linked to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal because of the weapons development there and the presence of jets that could be used to deploy nuclear bombs.

The safety of the country’s nuclear weapons has been a major concern. Western experts say Pakistan has about 100 nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a rapid expansion of its arsenal.

The great danger we’ve always feared is that, you know, if terrorism is not controlled in their country, that those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands,” US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

Pakistan Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the death of local leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in 2009 and the American commando raid that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden last year.

He said the attack was carried out by four suicide bombers, but the air force indicated nine militants were involved.

The militants, some wearing explosives strapped to their bodies, attacked the base around 2am local time with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the air force.

At least one of the rockets hit a hangar holding a number of aircraft, airforce spokesman Tariq Mahmood said. The rocket pierced the wall, and shrapnel damaged one of the aircraft inside.

After the rocket barrage, the attackers scaled the wall surrounding the air base, said Mahmood.

Guards inside the base opened fire on the militants, and an intense firefight ensued, he said. In the initial exchange of gunfire one Pakistani soldier was killed.

Security forces, backed by a team of elite commandos, fought the militants for two hours and were finally able to retake the base, the air force said.

Nine militants and one security officer were killed in the fighting. The head of the base, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, was wounded in the shoulder, said Mahmood.

Eight of the militants were killed inside the territory of the base, while the body of another was found outside the base perimetre where he blew himself up, the air force said in a statement.

Security forces are searching the area for any militants who may have escaped. They found and destroyed two improvised explosive devices, the spokesman said.

The Pakistani army has carried out numerous offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s semiautonomous tribal area along the Afghan border and appears to be planning an operation in the group’s last major sanctuary in North Waziristan.

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