Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed suicide bomb targeted police providing security at protest outside Punjab Assembly.
At least 13 people were reported killed and 82 others injured on Monday following a suicide bombing targeting police outside the Punjab Assembly in Lahore.
The explosion, claimed as a suicide blast by a militant group, occurred when hundreds of pharmaceutical manufacturers were protesting against recent amendments to the provincial Drugs Act. Police personnel ensuring security at the demonstration are among the dead and injured, including a senior official negotiating an end to the protest.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed the attack in a text message to local media. The militant organization said the blast had been retaliation for the Pakistan Army’s ongoing operations against militants in the country’s tribal areas. Last year, Ahrar had claimed responsibility for one of Pakistan’s worst attacks, a Taliban suicide bomb in a Lahore park on Easter that left more than 70 dead, including many children. It had recently vowed it would continue carrying out such attacks.
A spokesman for the group warned in a statement that Monday’s blast was “just the start.”
The attack “seems to be a suicide blast,” senior police official Amin Wains said, adding it had apparently targeted police trying to regulate the protest.
Police cordoned off the area on Mall Road, one of the city’s main arteries, amid fears of a second blast as rescuers raced to the scene, with images of the injured being carried away shown by local media. Rescue workers, including Punjab’s 1122 and ambulances, have shifted all injured to the nearby Mayo and Ganga Ram hospitals. Paramilitary Rangers and soldiers of the Pakistan Army have also reached the site and an emergency has been declared across the city.
“We fear many injured,” Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister, told AFP. Rescue official Deeba Shahnaz said a senior traffic official had died in the explosion. Employees of local Aaj TV are among the injured and a DSNG van of the organization was destroyed in the explosion. “The blast was so powerful. I saw the injured and bodies, saw flames surrounding the blast site, people were crying,” witness Muhammad Tariq told AFP.
Up to 400 people had attended the protest, according to an AFP reporter who was on the scene when the explosion occurred. “Suddenly there was a bang and a huge blast,” he said. “Everybody ran for safety.”
Meanwhile, in Balochistan, two members of a bomb disposal squad were killed in Quetta when they were attempting to defuse an explosive. “Commander of Quetta’s bomb disposal squad and his assistant were killed as a bomb went off when they tried to defuse it. At least 11 other people were wounded in this incident,” Abdul Razaq Cheema, a senior police official in Quetta, told AFP.
Social media users were quick to suggest the blast was meant to derail plans to hold the highly-anticipated final of the Pakistan Super League in Lahore. The second year of the Twenty20 tournament is currently being held in the United Arab Emirates out of security fears, but after a military crackdown on extremism officials were confident enough to plan for the final to take place in the cricket-mad city.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a statement, has condemned the attack and directed authorities to ensure the injured are accorded the best medical treatment. He also vowed that such “cowardly attacks” would not deter the country’s resolve to tackle terrorism.
“Terrorism isn’t a novelty for us. Our story has been one of constant struggle against its grasp, and a fight for the soul of Pakistan,” he said. “We will not stop until we can call ourselves a free and secure people; that is a promise.”
More than 60,000 people have died and $111 billion has been spent in the “staggering” cost of Pakistan’s war on extremism, the Foreign Office said in a statement on Monday. The statement, hitting back at recent criticism out of the U.S. of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, also vowed that emerging militant groups such as Islamic State in the region “will not deter Pakistan from continuing its valiant struggle against terrorism.”
Earlier, on Feb. 7, the National Counterterrorism Authority had warned of a possible terrorist attack in Lahore and directed all government buildings to be kept under strict vigilance.