On Monday evening, a suicide bomber detonated the explosives strapped to his body in the midst of a crowd of protesters outside the Punjab Assembly, killing 13 persons and injuring 80 others. Six police officers, including a former provincial counterterrorism chief, were among those killed.
A splinter group of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has been routed from its stronghold in the tribal regions in a series of military operations, was quick to claim credit in a text message for the grisly violence, which came three days after it pledged attacks on government installations. They said that it was revenge for Pakistani military operations against Islamic militants in tribal regions along the Afghan border. A spokesman for the group warned in a statement that Monday’s blast was “just the start”.
The blast ripped through the crowd of hundreds of pharmacists, who were protesting new amendments to a law governing drug sales.
“Closed-circuit footage showed the suicide attacker was on foot,” said Dr Mohammad Iqbal, chief of Counter Terrorism Department. Eyewitnesses, however, said that the attacker was on motorbike and he detonated his explosives in the middle of the crowd.
The suicide bomber walked up to where the police officials were holding negotiations with the protestors, according to a witness. A policeman signaled him to stop but before he could get hold of him the bomber blew himself up.
Police cordoned off the area near the crowded Mall Road, one of the city’s main arteries, as witnesses fled in fear of a second explosion. The blast was so powerful that it was heard several kilometers away. Live TV registered a loud bang and showed smoke and fire billowing up as people ran away, some of them carrying the wounded.
Witness Muhammad Tariq said, “The blast was so powerful. I saw the injured and bodies, saw flames surrounding the blast site, people were crying.”
The deadly bombing capped a bloody day as elsewhere in the country three paramilitary soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack, while two explosives experts died while defusing a bomb.
The blast took place at 6.10 pm. Among the dead were DIG (Traffic) Ahmad Mobin, and SSP Zahid Gondal. DIG Mobin was seen on TV before blast, urging the protesters to end the strike.
Several ambulances arrived at the scene. Rescue officials said that all the injured people had been transferred to hospital and 9 of them are in critical condition.
Citing preliminary investigation, Law Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed it was a suicide blast and the target was police. “A van was parked on one side of the bomber which helped minimize the casualties,” he told journalists. Muhammad Iqbal, the chief of police’s Counter Terrorism Department, said vital forensic evidence has been collected from the blast site and sent to the Punjab Forensic Science Agency (PFSA) for analysis.
On February 7, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) had issued a warning that “an unidentified terrorist group has planned a terrorist attack in Lahore”. It urged “extreme vigilance and heightened security measures”. In its notification, NACTA had addressed Punjab’s home secretary and senior police officials that all vital installations, including important buildings, hospitals and schools, be kept under strict vigilance.
While speaking to reporters at the blast site, IG Sukhera reiterated the pledge that the sacrifices of the fallen police officials would not go to waste. “The army and law enforcement agencies, with the support of the nation, are fighting valiantly against terrorists and extremists,” he added. “Such cowardly terrorist attacks cannot demoralize the forces. The terrorists will be defeated.”
The group, which claimed a number of large attacks last year, is one of several splinter factions from the Pakistani Taliban, which has repeatedly targeted security forces and religious minorities. In recent years, Pakistan has launched several offensives against the Taliban and other Islamic militants in the tribal regions.
PM Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack and reiterated Pakistan is in decisive fight against terrorism while praising sacrifices of the slain security personnel. He also directed the Punjab government to provide all possible assistance to the injured.
“We will continue this fight against the terrorists among us, and will continue to fight it until we liberate our people of this cancer, and avenge those who have laid down their lives for us,” Sharif said. “We will not stop until we can call ourselves a free and secure people; that is a promise,” he said.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif also denounced the deadly blast and expressed a deep sense of grief and sorrow over the loss of precious lives, especially that of DIG Mubeen and SSP Gondal. “Such cowardly acts are highly condemnable,” he added.