After eight hours of fierce gun battles, Pakistani security forces are claiming victory against as yet unidentified gunmen who attacked a police-training facility on the outskirts of Lahore the country's second largest city and cultural hub in a siege that Pakistani media is comparing to the Mumbai massacre in India last November. At least 13 police trainees were killed and more than 90 people were injured and taken to hospitals. The death toll is expected to rise, as bodies still need to be recovered from inside the building. More than 400 trainees are believed to have been present at the time of the attack. Authorities say they have one of the attackers in custody, while four have been killed. Two others blew themselves up to evade capture.
Paramilitary troops and élite police commandos were called to the facility on Monday morning after an estimated 15 gunmen stormed onto the premises at 7 a.m., blasting their way in with the use of grenades and sophisticated weapons. In a brazen, military-style operation, the attackers some of whom wore police uniforms, while others were masked and clothed in white entered the grounds while the trainees were performing their morning drill on the parade ground. (See pictures from the assault.)
Eyewitnesses told reporters that the attackers approached the premises from four directions, moving in groups of three or four. The attackers began hurling grenades before shooting the trainees on sight. Local television footage later showed bloodied bodies of uniformed trainees lying on the parade ground. Survivors of the initial assault were shown crawling to safety. The attackers then entered the three-story building, spraying bullets indiscriminately. "I jumped from the second floor," an injured police officer later told reporters. "There were dead bodies all over the place." (See pictures of the surviving attacker from the Mumbai massacre.)
The police recruits were not trained to confront armed terrorists, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters. They were shown fleeing the building in a panic as the rangers a paramilitary force and members of the Punjab police's élite commando unit arrived. The security forces mounted nearby buildings and worked their way into the besieged facility. Fierce gun battles ensued as they sought to push back the attackers. In scenes reminiscent of the three-day siege of Mumbai's luxury hotels, there was a relentless exchange of gunfire, with ammunition crackling loudly in the background. The local area, Manawan, near the Wagah border with India, was placed under curfew as local residents fled the area.
Several rounds of tear gas were fired into the building in a bid to subdue the attackers. On the grounds outside, a bearded man who was among the attackers was caught as he attempted to throw a grenade at the security forces. A thick crowd gathered around him as he was beaten and dragged away into custody. At 3:30 p.m., security forces on the roof of the building began to celebrate, firing several rounds in the air, raising clenched fists and dancing as they issued cries of "Alhamdulillah" to thank God for their victory.
Moments later, Interior Minister Malik appeared on local media to hail the operation as a success. Some of the attackers were captured alive, he said, adding, "I can confirm one man, who was caught outside the building when he tried to throw a grenade." The heavy teargassing had slowly pushed the gunmen up to the top floor, where they were holding some 35 police hostages. Malik said the hostages were released and four of the attackers killed. Three of the men were killed by snipers, Rao Iftikhar, a government official, said.
Precise details are still emerging. The fact that the attackers managed to sustain their assault for several hours is being seen as evidence of sophisticated training. Monday's siege comes less than a month after a dozen gunmen carrying backpacks and wielding Kalashnikovs attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore. On that occasion, which was also widely compared to Mumbai, the gunmen managed to escape after killing half a dozen police officers. The gunmen were not captured, while the government was accused of a major security lapse and of floundering in its pursuit of the perpetrators. (See pictures of the attack on the cricket team.)
By contrast, the capture of surviving suspects marks a rare breakthrough. A series of previous terrorist attacks has gone unpunished. It is still not known who carried out the attack on the cricket team, and there are confusing claims about the authors of the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad last September.
The U.S. has named al-Qaeda operative Usama al-Kini, who was killed in a drone attack on Jan. 1, as being responsible for the Marriott attack, while the Interior Ministry blames Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a militant group that has fought in Indian-administered Kashmir. LeJ, which has links with al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban commander, is also widely suspected of mounting the attack on the cricket team. Other names floated include Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group blamed for the Mumbai massacre, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, another such group that has fought in Kashmir and more recently in Pakistan's tribal areas. Given the chilling similarities in the tactics deployed in the two attacks in Lahore, many analysts believe the same group could have been involved. All these militant organizations have a strong presence in the country's richest province, Punjab.
The attack on the police cadets underscores the growing threat that Islamist militancy poses to Pakistan on a widening geographic scale. It comes just days after a suicide bomber attacked a mosque on the edge of Pakistan's tribal areas, killing more than 70 in one of the deadliest attacks the country has seen in recent months. The city of Lahore was long considered immune to terrorism strikes, but it suffered its first suicide bombing in January 2008. With the second full-frontal attack in less than a month, there are fears that the militants are training their sights on Pakistan's major cities. In the face of it all, the government seems ineffective. There has yet to be a successful prosecution of a terrorist suspect.