Suicide bomb in Lahore kills 24 outside high court

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The Independent Online

A suicide bomber killed at least 24 people and injured 70 others in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, in the first major attack since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto two weeks ago.

Yesterday's attack, which claimed the lives of 15 policemen, took place outside the High Court in Lahore minutes before a weekly anti-government demonstration led by lawyers was set to pass by. Witnesses said the bomber, aged about 25, walked from a motorbike towards the policemen and blew himself up.

"There were about 60 to 70 police on duty when a man rammed into our ranks and there was a huge explosion," said Syed Imtiaz Hussain, a police officer, who suffered leg injuries. "I saw the bodies of other policemen burning. It was like hell."

The attack comes amid heightened tensions in Pakistan after the assassination in Rawalpindi of Ms Bhutto, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, which prompted the postponement of elections by five weeks to 18 February.

Electricity and gas shortages have become increasingly common and the price of wheat flour has risen beyond the reach of Pakistan's poor, triggering anger against the government.

Large numbers of policemen had been deployed ahead of the planned demonstration against President Pervez Musharraf's sacking of independent-minded judges during the imposition of a state of emergency two months ago. At the time of the attack, more than 200 lawyers and activists were a hundred yards away, listening to speeches.

"I have not heard such a big explosion in my life. We felt as if our eardrums were about to burst," Abdul Hameed, a lawyer's assistant told the Associated Press.

Another witness, Salman Raja, a constitutional lawyer, said: "I was about to enter the high court gate... just 25 yards from the site of the blast. I saw policemen fall down immediately, there was a huge blast. We were about to move and enter the gate. The policemen fell down and collapsed on the road, then the cars jammed up, people were getting out and running away in fear of a second blast. There was no way to move from there safely, after all, a second blast could have happened anywhere."

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack but suspicions are likely to fall on Islamist militants linked to Taliban and al-Qa'ida elements based in the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border.

The attack was the latest in a series of bombings that have targeted policemen, army officers and employees of the intelligence services in Pakistan. But it was the first time that such an attack has taken place in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province and a centre for political and cultural activity.

Salman Raja added: "It's very distressing that this is happening here now... It's a horrific feeling that now it's happened in Lahore, it can happen anywhere. We used to see this on television, in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. It's now no longer a distant feeling, it's striking us here at home."

Over the past three months there have been at least 20 suicide bombings which have killed 400 people, many of them security forces, the most intense period of terror attacks since Pakistan allied with the United States in its "war on terror" against al-Qa'ida in 2001.

* The chief of the UN nuclear watchdog called yesterday for nuclear security in Pakistan to be steped up. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that its nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of Islamist militants.