Twin Suicide Blasts Rock Pakistan

Suicide Bombings Kill 45

Twin suicide bombings targeting an army convoy ripped through a densely populated neighbourhood bazaar in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday, killing at least 45 people, police said. The area was full of security with a dense military presence.

At 12:30 p.m. (2:30 a.m. ET) suicide assailants approached military convoys on foot and detonating their explosives 15 to 20 seconds apart, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said on local television.

The Pakistani Army sent reinforcements to the area, which connects the city with the airport and a military residential area. Soldiers cordoned it off, barring reporters from entering. Troops were deployed on rooftops and army helicopters hovered overhead.

Rescue workers with stretchers rushed toward the blast site and the wounded were transported to an army hospital.

Hours later, a third blast shook the Moon Market area of Lahore, said Rai Nazar, a Lahore Police spokesman. He said the nighttime explosion was not as serious as the earlier twin blasts. The investigation so far indicates that the bomb was “planted,” he said. No one was hurt. (CNN)

Police official Mohammed Shafiq told reporters the heads of both attackers had been found.

The powerful attack came four days after a suicide bombing at an intelligence service facility in the city killed at least 14 people, and it followed smaller attacks this week in Pakistan’s volatile northwest borderlands.

The twin blasts mark the second attack on military personnel in Lahore this week. The string of assaults sparked fears that militants who recently seemed to be hobbled had regrouped, just as they have after past setbacks.

The Victims

Police said the two bombers earlier in the day struck a densely populated bazaar in a neighbourhood containing several offices of security agencies, the prime target of Pakistan’s Islamist insurgents. But most victims of the lunchtime blasts were civilians such as shoppers, parents picking up their children from school, and worshipers heading to a mosque for Friday prayers.

Dozens of people – nearly 100, by some accounts – were injured in the blasts and were shuttled to six city hospitals. Medical authorities pleaded for blood donations. 10 to 12 of the dead were Pakistani soldiers.

The Survivors

Witnesses to the blasts complained in television interviews that security in the middle-class area was not tight enough. Intelligence officials warned last week that suicide bombers were planning to strike the city, and police in Lahore said they were on high alert in recent days.

“If somebody is determined to kill… there is no strategy that can work, so far, in the world,” Khusro Pervez, the Lahore city commissioner, told Dawn television. (The Washington Post)

Nadeem Attari, whose clothes were drenched with blood, said he was attending Friday Prayers in a nearby mosque when he heard the blast at the R. A. Bazaar. “I left the prayers and rushed outside,” he said. “Suddenly there was another blast near an army vehicle. I ran away,” he said. (The New York Times)

Another witness, Nadeem Ahmed, who works at an automobile repair shop in the market area, said there were two blasts and the air filled with smoke.

Said Ashraf Chaudhry, 25, who lives a few hundred yards from the blast site, said he went to the rooftop of his house after he heard the explosions. “Ambulances sirens blared from all directions and an army helicopter was circling over the area,” he said. Mr. Chaudhry said the neighbourhood included several religious schools that have been under pressure by the military. He said the blasts happened near a crowded bus stop at the edge of the market. “On one side of the road, there are nice houses and the area is quite nice,” he said. “And on the other side is R. A. Bazaar.” (The New York Times)

Some of the wounded were missing limbs, lying in pools of blood after the explosions, eyewitness Afzai Awan said. “I saw smoke rising everywhere,” Mr. Awan told reporters. “A lot of people were crying.” (Globe & Mail)

The Suspects

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s attack. The Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan group of the same name, asserted responsibility for Monday’s attack in Lahore that killed 13 people in an affluent part of Model Town.

Azam Tariq, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said the attack was in response to U.S. aggression against Muslims around the world.

Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said the renewed attacks are a “sign of desperation” by the militant. “We broke their networks. That’s why they have not been able to strike for a considerable time,” he said. (Globe & Mail)

But the attacks show that the loose network of insurgents angry with Islamabad for its alliance with the U.S. retain the ability to strike throughout Pakistan despite pressure from army offensives and American missile strikes.

On Wednesday, World Vision temporarily suspended its operations in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province after an attack on its office killed six employees. Gunmen threw grenades and opened fire on the staff inside the humanitarian agency’s compound before detonating a homemade bomb, according to a World Vision statement.

Pervez told Dawn that India – Pakistan’s mortal foe – was behind the bombings, although he offered no evidence. Pakistani authorities often blame outside forces for attacks that are claimed by domestic militant groups, some of which are based in the province surrounding Lahore.

The Pakistani Taliban, which is based in the rugged tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, slowed its attacks last summer after its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. The organization soon picked a new leader and, by October, unleashed a new campaign of suicide bombings.

During the bloody wave of attacks that began in October – coinciding with the army’s ground offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal area – Lahore was hit several times. In mid-October, three groups of gunmen attacked three security facilities in the eastern city, a rampage that left 28 dead. Twin suicide bombings at a market there in December killed around 50 people.

The group are believed to have lost their top commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a U.S. missile strike in January. The group has denied Mr. Mehsud is dead but has failed to prove he’s still alive.

The Taliban have renewed pressure on unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari. A lull in violence could have provided some relief for Zardari, who faces calls from opponents to hand over his strongest powers to the prime minister. If that does happen, Pakistan could face new political turmoil while being pressed to defeat the Taliban.

Kamran Bokhari, South Asia director at the STRATFOR global intelligence firm, said the blasts were not as sophisticated as others. He expected a new Taliban push. “This new wave was expected as they are under pressure to demonstrate that, despite the several hits they have taken, they continue to sustain operational capability,” he said. (Reuters)

“The militant network is not substantially or reasonably damaged and they are still capable of striking,” said analyst Khadim Hussain. (Reuters)

The Military

Lahore is the biggest city in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. The attacks here this week send a direct challenge to the authority and effectiveness of the military, which recruits heavily in Punjab and has sought to move against militants in recent months in Pakistan’s mountainous and often lawless areas near the border with Afghanistan.

Apart from facing a stubborn insurgency at home, Pakistan is also under heavy American pressure to open a new front and go after Afghan Taliban militants in border sanctuaries, a move that would tax its stretched military.

While Taliban basis have been smashed in government offensives in militant strongholds such as South Waziristan, fighters have a history of melting away to rugged areas which are hard for the military to penetrate.

The surge in violence follows a Pakistani crackdown on militants linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, including the arrest of the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Pakistan is a crucial ally of the United States in Washington’s efforts to challenge the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Military offensives and stepped-up American missile strikes dealt fresh setbacks to the group and its new leader, causing bombings to drop off in recent months. That chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, is believed to have been killed in a drone strike in January.

But shattering the Taliban, an umbrella group of varied militant factions, does not necessarily make it easier to contain. Sub-groups with the capacity to stage even single bombings, some analysts say, can wreak havoc and deplete public confidence in Pakistan’s security forces and weak government.

“We’ve been hearing that their backs are broken for quite some time,” defence analyst Masood Shareef Khattak told the television station Express News. “I don’t see all this ending anywhere in the near future or even in the distant future.” (Washington Post)

Pakistani markets have mostly shrugged off the violence, which has spread from militant strongholds in the northwest near the Afghan border to major cities. The market temporarily dipped after the Lahore attacks, before Pakistani stocks ended on a more than 18-month high on foreign buying on Friday, passing through the 10,000-point level. The Karachi Stock Exchange’s benchmark 100-share index rose 146.29 points, or 1.48 percent, to end at 10,025.99.

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