Death and chaos returned to the Pakistani city of Lahore today when armed militants attacked police and intelligence agency offices before setting off a car bomb that killed about 30 people and injured hundreds more.
The authorities said they believed the assault had been launched in revenge for an ongoing military operation against the Taliban, triggering concerns it could be the first in a new wave of attacks.
Witnesses said they saw several armed men pull up in a car on a street between the offices of an emergency police unit and the country’s ISI intelligence agency about 10.30am and start firing. When guards returned fire, the militants detonated a large bomb that demolished one building and tore through the walls of others.
Emergency crews and passers-by struggled to drag survivors from the rubble. Twenty people were hurt when the ceilings of operating rooms in a nearby hospital also collapsed. The blast could be heard four miles away.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack but the head of Pakistan’s interior ministry, Rehman Malik, suggested it could have been carried out in retaliation for the government’s offensive against Taliban fighters in the Swat valley and elsewhere in the north-west. “I believe that anti-Pakistan elements, who want to destabilise our country and see defeat in Swat, have now turned to our cities,” he said.
Since the military launched a surprisingly forceful operation last month against Taliban fighters who had seized control of Swat and nearby areas after a ceasefire broke down, there has been concern that militants would launch attacks to distract the authorities and undermine popular support.
Lahore – the capital of the influential and powerful Punjab province – is an obvious target for such retaliatory attacks, especially given its traditional links to the military.
For the people of Lahore – considered the cultural capital of Pakistan and long having managed to avoid the worst of the militant violence that has rocked other parts of the country – such attacks are a new and mounting threat. In March, the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked and militants also launched an assault on a police training academy that same month. The latest bombing is the third such incident in the city this year but few will believe it will be the last.
“It’s difficult at this point to pin-point [who is responsible] but it’s probably linked to Swat or the tribal belt,” said retired general Talat Masood.
“This follows the pattern of attacks on the security and intelligence agencies. Targeting Lahore is important to them. I think [the authorities] were expecting something like this. The militants think it’s the only way they can stop the military operation because it could put pressure on the government with people calling for them to start negotiations.”
There was also speculation within the Pakistani media, however, that the attacks could have been linked to the trial of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the banned group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, who stands accused over the Mumbai attacks. He had been due to be presented for a hearing at the nearby Lahore High Court. Some commentators suggested it may have been an escape attempt gone wrong.
Either way, the blast caused considerable damage in the centre of Lahore and initially it was feared the death toll was even higher. Among the dead were members of the controversial ISI intelligence agency whose building was among those targeted.
“The moment the blast happened, everything went dark in front of my eyes,” a witness, Muhammad Ali, told the Associated Press. “The way the blast happened, then gunfire, it looked as if there was a battle going on.”
The operation in Swat and other parts of the north-west was launched after militants took control of several areas no more than 60 miles from Islamabad. Yesterday the army struck at targets in South Waziristan, the home of Baitullah Mehsud, whose Taliban group claimed responsibility for the police academy attack.
The operation has been strongly supported by the West. Washington in particular has said it considers the operation a test of the determination of the government and the military to finally confront militants.
The army has said that at least 1,100 militants have been killed in the month-long operation and that Taliban fighters are in retreat. The military said troops had cleared militants out of Piochar, a village in a remote part of Swat that is the rear base for the Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, and predicted that Mingora, the largest town in the valley, would be cleared of militants within three days.
Yet the operation has come at considerable cost. More than two million people have been forced from their homes in the region, triggering an exodus into makeshift refugee camps and to the homes of relatives in other parts of the country. Aid officials say that the situation has the potential to turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.
The army today said that the areas of Sultanwas and Mohmand had also been emptied of militants and were now considered safe enough for refugees to return.