Pakistan Placed On High Alert After Blasts In Lahore Kill 31




 
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March 12th, 2008  
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Topic: Pakistan Placed On High Alert After Blasts In Lahore Kill 31


Washington Post
March 12, 2008
Pg. 8
Government Agency Targeted In Country's Cultural Capital
By Candace Rondeaux, Washington Post Foreign Service
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 11 -- Government officials in Pakistan placed the country on high alert Tuesday after two powerful bomb blasts killed an estimated 31 people and injured 170 in coordinated attacks in the city of Lahore.
The first blast occurred about 9:30 a.m. at the offices of Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency as hundreds of staff members arrived for work, according to government officials. The devastating explosion partially sheared off one side of the building, blew out dozens of windows and left a deep crater in the ground.
The agency, officials said, is responsible for cases involving illegal immigration and smuggling. It is also the base for a U.S.-trained counterterrorism unit.
The source of the blast in the heart of the capital of Punjab province appeared to be explosives planted in a vehicle parked nearby, according to a spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry.
Chaudhry Manzoor, the Federal Investigation Agency's director in Punjab, said he and at least 200 other officials were in the building when the bomb exploded. "I saw dozens of officials badly injured and some taking their last breaths," he said. Manzoor said that several prisoners were also housed in the building but that none had been injured.
The second blast occurred around the same time as the first, when a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck into an advertising agency several miles away in a residential area of Lahore called Model Town. Sabir Ahmad, a guard at the agency, said two men in the vehicle drove toward an exterior gate at high speed before detonating their explosives.
"The driver had a longish beard. I could not see the other guy sitting next to him properly," Ahmad said. "But I saw two big cartons in the van. I asked them loudly why they were coming to the house. Then the driver just yelled at me to move away from the vehicle. A few seconds later, he smashed the truck into the building."
The explosion, which occurred several hundred yards from the second home of political leader Asif Ali Zardari, killed a man and two children who were playing nearby, government officials and witnesses said. Zardari is the widower of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
"The whole nation is deeply grieved and perturbed over these acts of sheer madness," retired Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for Pakistan's Interior Ministry, said at a news conference in Islamabad. "The law enforcement agencies are trying their level best to break the remnants of clandestine terrorist cells."
Area hospitals, which were placed on emergency status immediately after the blasts, were overrun with casualties. Reports on the death toll varied. Cheema said 24 people had been killed, but late Tuesday evening local officials said there had been 31 fatalities.
The bombings marked the second time in a week that Lahore, the country's cultural capital, has been the target of violence, and the third attack in as many weeks on a prominent government target.
Pakistan has been racked by political unrest and violence since early last year, but attacks have intensified considerably since Bhutto was assassinated Dec. 27. Almost 150 people have been killed in violence since parliamentary elections on Feb. 18.
Cheema said Tuesday that the government has beefed up security in public areas and at government installations across the country. Provincial government officials have also been asked to review their plans and close any gaps in security.
The successive attacks in Lahore signify a new turn in the Pakistani government's six-year battle against religious extremists. The cosmopolitan city of 7 million had until this year remained relatively untouched by the violence in the country. That changed in January, however, when a suicide bomber killed at least 19 people outside the Lahore High Court as lawyers were rallying for the restoration of the chief justice, whom President Pervez Musharraf had deposed.
Cheema said the bombings over the past week could be a sign that extremists are trying to send a message to the leaders of Pakistan's newly elected Parliament. "We are going through a very crucial phase of transition, and we are transiting toward a full-fledged democratic rule," he said. "I think perhaps these tyrants are trying to put maximum pressure on the government that is in the making."
Government assurances appeared to do little to quell rising anxiety in Lahore. The attacks Tuesday drew hundreds of angry people into the city's streets and prompted many parents to pull their children out of school.
Special correspondent Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.
 


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