Militants launched a gun and bomb attack on the anti-terrorist police headquarters in Pakistan's largest city yesterday, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 100 others. Six armed men fought a gun battle with police before a truck filled with explosive rammed the headquarters of Karachi's Criminal Investigation Department, detonated and levelled the building.
The CID has taken the lead in hunting militants in Karachi, and this week arrested militants from the banned sectarian group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an ally of the Taliban. Six of the militants were presented in court hours before yesterday's attack.
The group is believed to have been behind vicious assaults this year on Shia worshippers, a major Sufi shrine, and a Shia lawmaker. Some describe it as the most dangerous terrorist group in the country, with fighters hardened by experiences in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and deep links with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.
The attack underscored the threat to Karachi, a city that remains vulnerable to major terrorist attacks even as it reels from the highest levels of ethnic violence in a decade.
"We heard different kinds of firing for several minutes and then a deafening explosion," witness Ali Hussain told the Associated Press. "The roof of our house collapsed." The police compound that was targeted has a detention centre that was believed to be holding criminals, and possibly militants. The blast, which was heard miles away, left a deep crater and destroyed many nearby buildings.
Television images showed the charred and mangled remains of cars parked outside and broken masonry strewn around the scene, inside a high-security zone of Karachi close to government buildings and major hotels. Bloodied and dazed victims were taken to ambulances, some of them children pulled from the debris.
Security officers searching through mangled bricks and iron looked for survivors late into the night. But with many people still believed to be trapped under the rubble, and many others badly wounded, the death toll was expected to climb significantly.
Owing to its size and sprawl, Karachi, a city of 18 million, has long attracted all manner of militant groups who have found shelter in its teeming slums. Laskhar-e-Jhangvi has a well-established presence there, hiding among heavily concentrated Pashtun neighbourhoods, where even police scarcely venture. The blast sparked immediate calls for the city's feuding political parties to focus on the threat posed by extremists.
"[We] can't afford petty politics in Karachi any more," presidential spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani wrote on Twitter. "All political parties... must fight the extremists together."
Islamist militants with bases in the north-west close to Afghanistan began targeting the state in earnest in 2007. Many thousands of people, most of them civilians, have been killed in suicide attacks against government, police and Western targets, as well religious minorities.
The government has declared war on the militants, and the army has moved into several areas in the largely lawless North-west. But the insurgents have proved to be remarkably resilient, drawing on networks across the country inspired or allied to al-Qa'ida, which is itself headquartered in the North-west.