Gunmen armed with rifles and hand grenades attacked a police training academy in eastern Pakistan today, killing 11 officers and wounding dozens in a brazen assault that underscored the growing threat militancy poses to the US-allied, nuclear-armed country.
The gunbattle on the outskirts of Lahore – coming less than a month after the deadly armed ambush of Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team in the heart of the city – was still going on more than three hours after the attack began.
Paramilitary troops rushed in to the compound to help, while some police tried to escape the compound by crawling on their hands and knees around others’ limp bodies.
“It is a complete panic here. We do not have any idea how many the attackers are, and how many of them are dead, or hiding in nearby buildings,” officer Syed Ahmad Mobin said. “We are fighting them.”
Pakistan has endured scores of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years, and it faces tremendous US pressure to eradicate al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents on its soil. Most of the violence occurs along the country’s north west border with Afghanistan, but cities in the east have not escaped, with Lahore seemingly an increasingly alluring target.
In early March, a group of gunmen ambushed the visiting cricket team in a crowded city traffic circle, sparking a battle that left six police officers and a driver dead and wounded several of the players.
Today’s attack occurred as dozens of the training police officers were carrying out morning drills.
“We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions,” said Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital. He described the attackers as bearded and young.
At least 11 police officers died in the attack, while another 40 to 45 were taken to medical facilities, police official Ali Nawaz said. About 700 trainee officers were inside the academy at the time, he said.
Helicopters flew above the facilities to try to spot the attackers.
“We have reports that some of the attackers have been hit, but we don’t have any details,” Mr Nawaz said, noting the attackers appeared to be well-trained.
Lahore police chief Haji Habibur Rehman told Pakistan’s ARY news channel that at least six to seven attackers were believed to be involved in the shooting at the Manawan Police Training Centre. Television footage showed several officers lying on the ground.
Pakistan’s stability is of paramount concern to the US, which is fighting a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan more than seven years after the American-led invasion ousted the militant regime from power there.
US officials have warned Pakistan that militants pose a threat to its existence, and have prevailed upon the Muslim nation to crack down on insurgents in its border areas. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to hide out in Pakistan’s north west while planning attacks on US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
In unveiling a new war strategy for Afghanistan last week, President Barack Obama highlighted the important role Pakistan has to play, pledging to increase aid to the country to help it stave off the militancy, while warning Pakistan not to expect a “blank cheque” without any accountability.
It was not immediately clear who might be behind today’s attack, and no one claimed responsibility, but the ambush-style attack was reminiscent of the assault on the Sri Lankan team.
The Sri Lankan attack included several features – heavily armed, backpack-toting gunmen besieging a populated area – that were hallmarks of last year’s siege of the Indian city of Mumbai.
India has blamed the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba for that assault, and Pakistan has taken several of the outfit’s alleged leaders into custody. Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is largely based in eastern Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, has denied involvement in either Mumbai or the cricket team attack.
Several militant groups operate well beyond Pakistan’s northwest. Some of them, including Lashkar-e-Taiba have their roots in the Kashmir dispute with India, and Pakistani spy agencies are believed to have helped set them up.