At Least 23 Are Killed in Huge Bomb Blast in Pakistan
LAHORE, Pakistan — A huge suicide car bomb in one of the busiest districts of Lahore killed at least 23 people and injured almost 300 on Wednesday, officials and rescue workers said, deepening official worries that frail security in this nuclear-armed country may allow militants to strike with impunity.
The explosion occurred near the offices of Lahore’s police chief, which was partially damaged, and of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the premier Pakistani spy agency, which may have been the target. Rangers and army soldiers immediately cordoned off the area.
It was the third attack in three months in or near Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. The bomb left a crater eight feet deep and a vista of flattened concrete and destruction. Dozens of vehicles were crumpled like paper and broken glass filled the street. The dark pink brick building of the Rescue 15 ambulance service collapsed and emergency workers dug through the debris to try to find survivors.
No group immediately took responsibility for the attack, which Pakistani officials said may have been revenge for the Pakistan Army’s campaign against Taliban insurgents in the Swat valley north of the capital, Islamabad. “There is a possibility that this is a retaliatory blast,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a presidential spokesperson and member of Parliament. “Unfortunately, the public will have to stand very strong and united because we are fighting a very powerful and ideologically driven enemy.”
“Very possibly, it is an attempt to subvert the army’s brave and courageous operation and the government’s resolve to defeat terrorists,” Ms. Ispahani said.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to move against the militants to undermine their support for the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, was in Islamabad to meet Pakistani leaders when the attack happened, Reuters reported.
Officials said at least three suspects had been detained. A crowd of onlookers beat one suspect as he was ushered into a vehicle by the police, witnesses said.
Sajjad Bhutta, the district coordination officer in Lahore, said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who rammed his vehicle into a building housing an ambulance service. The bomber broke through a security barrier before detonating the explosives. There were also reports of sniper fire. A number of witnesses and residents said they heard firing before the massive blast shook the entire neighborhood.
Ikram Rabbani, who works in a nearby store, said three or four attackers approached the building in a white-colored vehicle. One man, wearing a shirt and trousers, jumped out and opened fire.
Mr. Rabbani said he heard a small explosion followed by a second powerful blast. Troops poured out of the heavily fortified office of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency to secure the perimeter. Security forces took up position on nearby rooftops and a helicopter hovered above for a short while.
Fahim Jahanzaib, a rescue services official, said the death toll was 23 with more than 294 injured. Raja Riaz, a senior minister in the Punjab Province government, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that that about 30 people died.
At the site of the blast, police officials tried to stop people from gathering. “Move away,” shouted one officer. “Firing is still going on,” he warned as a throng of people tried to break through a police cordon.
A filling station was totally destroyed and several car showrooms nearby were damaged. Workers were seen clearing the debris and shattered glass as mangled vehicles lay nearby.
The explosion recalled a series of attacks.
In March, eight people were killed in the city in a commando-style attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, prompting a British umpire to complain that promises for heightened protection were not honored.
“We were promised that we would get presidential-style security,” the umpire, Chris Broad, who was traveling with the team, said after returning to Britain.
Then, later in March, militants hit several hundred police cadets caught off guard during a morning drill at their academy in a village near Lahore.
The attackers went on a rampage, killing at least eight recruits and instructors. One attacker was killed in the siege that followed and, in a gory finale, three detonated suicide belts, killing themselves. More than 100 people were wounded.
At the time, Rehman Malik, a senior adviser in Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, said the seven attackers had rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west — the same region used by the Taliban to stage attacks on American forces in Afghanistan.
The attack reinforced an assessment by Pakistani and American authorities that Taliban insurgents were teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, which is home to more than half of Pakistanis. The alliance poses a serious risk to the stability of the country, those authorities said.
Waqar Gilani contributed reporting from Lahore and Alan Cowell from Paris.