Car bombing kills about 30 in Pakistan

May 27, 2009 7:49:35 AM PDT
Gunmen detonated a car bomb near police and intelligence agency offices in eastern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing about 30 people and wounding at least 250 in one of the country's deadliest attacks this year. Attackers with rifles stepped from the car and opened fire on the intelligence agency building in the city of Lahore, then set off a massive blast when security guards returned fire, officials said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik suggested the attack could be retaliation for the government's military offensive to rout Taliban militants from the northwestern Swat Valley.

Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, sits near the Indian border and is considered a liberal, cultural capital. Assaults there have heightened fears that militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan is spreading well beyond the northwest region bordering Afghanistan. Wednesday's attack was the third major strike in Lahore in recent months.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the latest bombing. Police said two suspects were detained.

Raja Riaz, a senior minister in the Punjab provincial government, told reporters about 30 people were killed. Sajjad Bhutta, another senior government official, told reporters more than 250 people were injured.

A police building collapsed in the blast, and rescuers rushed to free officers buried in the rubble.

The explosion sheared the walls off neighboring buildings in a main business district. The ceilings of operating rooms in a nearby hospital also collapsed, injuring 20 people.

Agents from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency were among the dead, a senior official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

"The moment the blast happened, everything went dark in front of my eyes," witness Muhammad Ali said. "The way the blast happened, then gunfire, it looked as if there was a battle going on."

Sajjad Bhutta, a senior government official in Lahore, told reporters a car carrying several gunmen pulled up on a street between offices of the emergency police and the intelligence agency, Pakistan's premier spy organization.

"As some people came out from that vehicle and started firing at the ISI office, the guards from inside that building returned fire," he said. As the firing continued, the car suddenly exploded, he said.

The spy agency and police building were both badly damaged. An AP reporter saw dozens of troops entering the spy agency building to supervise the rescue work.

Police had little time to react to the gunshots before the blast.

"All of a sudden we heard a loud sound and the roof collapsed on us," said Mohammad Rehman, a police official who was wounded.

"First of all though, we heard the sound of gunfire, then the blast occurred."

Malik blamed the attack on militants that government forces are fighting in the Swat Valley and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas border region that U.S. and other officials believe al-Qaida and Taliban militants are using to plan attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.

"These terrorists were defeated in FATA and Swat and now they have come here," he told reporters.

The offensive in Swat is seen as a test of the government's resolve to combat the spread of militancy, and is strongly backed by Washington and Pakistan's other Western allies. The army has said at least 1,100 militants have been left dead in the monthlong operation.

The offensive has spurred fears that the Taliban could stage revenge assaults.

The spy agency is not directly involved in the fighting in Swat but is responsible for gathering intelligence to support the operation. It has also been behind the arrest of top al-Qaida operatives in recent years, and is responsible for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects.

In March, a group of gunmen attacked Sri Lanka's visiting cricket team in the heart of the city, killing six police officers and a driver and wounding several players.

Later that month, gunmen raided a police academy on the city's outskirts, leaving at least 12 dead during an eight-hour standoff with security forces, including army troops. Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility.

A variety of militant groups exist in Pakistan beyond al-Qaida and the Taliban, and officials and analysts believe they are increasingly inter-linked, which could make it easier to stage more sophisticated, multidimensional attacks.

Punjab is Pakistan's most populous province and home to some of its most violent groups.

The Inter-Services Intelligence agency is believed to have helped set some of them up in Pakistan's dispute with India over the Kashmir region.

U.S. officials have said the spy agency still maintains links with some of the outfits, vexing Washington.

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