LAHORE/PESHAWAR - Two airlines suspended their flights to Peshawar on Wednesday, after gunmen opened fire at a landing plane on Tuesday killing a passenger and wounding two crew members, while police arrested hundreds of suspects in the city.

Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways temporarily suspended their operation to and from Peshawar airport, said a senior official of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in Lahore. He said technically operation was not suspended but shifter to Islamabad and now Peshawar flights will operate to and from Islamabad.

The official said that management of other three airlines – Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Gulf Air will meet in Islamabad on Thursday (today) to decide the fate of their operation in the north-western city, which has been a special target of militants for its being close to troubled tribal areas.

Holed up deep inside a Taliban-friendly neighbourhood, gunmen waited patiently for a PIA plane to approach the airport before raising their guns into the night sky and unleashing a hail of bullets to shoot it down. Although only eight bullets hit the plane, one woman was killed and three crew members were wounded as the Airbus 310 plane carrying 178 passengers from Riyadh landed in Peshawar.

Airline officials said the gunmen had aimed specifically at the highly flammable fuel tank as they sought to blow up the aircraft, as well as the cockpit, to kill the pilot. “It would have been a disaster had they hit the fuel tank or cockpit,” said a senior PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) official, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to discuss the matter with the press.

It was the third incident of violence to affect Pakistan’s airports this month as international airlines review the safety of flying to a country with an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency. On June 8, a group of militants stormed Pakistan’s biggest airport in Karachi in a commando-style attack that prompted the army to start bombarding Taliban positions in tribal areas.

In the second incident, a passenger plane carrying anti-government preacher, Dr Tahirul Qadri, was diverted at the last minute from Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore following violent clashes on the ground between his supporters and police. The CAA said all flights were suspended after the latest attack, but domestic flights resumed operations on Wednesday. International flights remained suspended.

“After last night’s attack, I don’t think international airlines would take the risk to come to Peshawar,” said a senior CAA official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. 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. In response to the incident, Emirates cancelled a flight to Peshawar on Wednesday, while Air Arabia and Etihad Airways diverted planes to Islamabad.

“Emirates Airlines has decided to take precautionary measures and suspend its flights to and from Peshawar due to security reasons after unidentified gunmen attacked a PIA aircraft in Peshawar on June 24”, Emirates website reported. “Emirates has suspended flights... due to the security situation at the destination,” said the UAE-based airline, adding that passengers booked to travel during 25th-27th June could cancel their booking, rebook to travel at a later date, or to fly to another Emirates destination in Pakistan.

Etihad Airways’ flight EY261 from Abu Dhabi to Peshawar, which was scheduled to depart on June 24 at 11pm local time, was also cancelled, according to a statement released by the airline. Affected passengers in Abu Dhabi and Peshawar were re-booked to travel on alternative Etihad services to and from Pakistan. The airline’s next flight to Peshawar, scheduled to depart from Abu Dhabi on Thursday night, 26 June, is still under review. The airline said safety of passengers and staff is of paramount importance and it will continue to monitor the situation.

The flights cancellation and operations suspension comes only days after the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific announced on Tuesday that it will be suspending flights to Pakistan from this month. The decision came as a result of the attack at Karachi airport which forced insurance premiums on aircraft to shoot up. Three foreign airlines – British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa – had suspended their operations in Pakistan from September 23, 2008 due to security reasons after Marriott blast.

British airways used to operate to and from Islamabad while Singapore and Lufthansa operated from and to Lahore. Sources in CAA said that all member airlines of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Saudi and Gulf will meet separately in Islamabad and take a decisive position regarding Peshawar operation. Sources claimed if one airline takes decision to suspend its operation, all above said five airlines too would have to suspend their operations. These airlines had also suspended their operation for five to six months in 2009.

Police on Wednesday conducted search operations through Peshawar and arrested “more than 200 suspects” in connection with the plane attack, according to senior police official Najeebur Rehman. “Police commandos and sniffer dogs are taking part in the operation that is still going on,” he added. Positioned outside the perimeter fence of the airport, militants opened fire on the plane roughly six minutes before it landed. The bullets came from the areas of Badhber and Mashukhel near Peshawar, which are considered insecure and full of Taliban supporters.

The captain of the plane described his frantic efforts to land the aircraft safely as bullets whizzed by. “I saw several bullets flashing towards the cockpit and fuel tank and tried to avoid them,” the senior PIA official quoted the captain as saying after landing. “The cockpit and fuel tank were safe but eight bullets hit the right side of the plane, near the service door. The second engine, which was close to the fuel tank, was also hit.”