By Travis Fox and John Ward Anderson
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer and Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 11, 2008
LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan. 10 -- A suicide bomber detonated his explosives near the Lahore High Court in eastern Pakistan on Thursday, killing at least 23 people and wounding 47 others, police and hospital officials said. Many of the casualties were police officers, they said.
Officials said the bomber apparently targeted police who were forming a security cordon around the courthouse before the launch of a pro-democracy march by a group of lawyers. Lawyers are among President Pervez Musharraf's most vocal opponents and have accused him of interfering with the judiciary.
Lahore, considered the cultural capital of Pakistan, largely has been spared from the rash of suicide attacks that have plagued the country in the last year. Thursday's blast seemed to offer further evidence that Islamic extremists are branching out from the tribal areas near the Afghan border to strike ever deeper into Pakistan's heartland. The Bush administration considers Pakistan a key ally on counterterrorism.
Muhammad Fiaz, his white salwar-kameez splotched with blood but his injuries minor, said he was driving a minivan when the explosion occurred about 50 feet away.
"There was a huge blast in the back of me. All the van's windows broke," said Fiaz, 40. "There was blood, blood, blood, and dead bodies. Policemen were crying."
From inside the courthouse, where most of the lawyers had gathered ahead of their demonstration, Khurram Latif Khosa heard the blast and immediately ran outside, where he first gave aid to a mortally wounded man, then ran to the street and found "about 60 police personnel, crying. They were all in a pool of blood."
Khosa, a lawyer, blamed Musharraf and his government for the security lapse, saying, "They are the people who do not want a peaceful Pakistan, who are trying to create circumstances where there is no conducive environment for holding free and fair elections."
The blast came two weeks after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bombing and gun attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, just outside the capital of Islamabad. Bhutto's supporters accused Musharraf's government of failing to provide her with adequate protection.
Similarly, on Thursday, some of the lawyers outside the Lahore courthouse said the government had intelligence that suicide attackers were in the area but did not do enough to prevent the bombing.
The city's chief of police operations, Aftab Cheema, said that while police did have intelligence reports that suicide bombers had entered Punjab province, it was "almost impossible" to prevent such attacks, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan, a state news agency. Even with barricades, he said, police could not close all roads and stop all passersby from approaching them.
Bloody police uniforms, batons, shoes, badges, helmets and berets littered the street near the spot where the bomb exploded. Officers swiped at pedestrians with bamboo canes to keep them back while their colleagues picked pieces of flesh from the branches of nearby trees. Two cars, two motorized rickshaws, a motorcycle and a van were badly damaged.
Television footage of the scene shortly after the attack showed wounded police officers on the ground, their colleagues treating their injuries and helping to carry them to ambulances. One officer pounded his chest in anguish and screamed to the sky.
Police gathered at Mayo Hospital, where most of the wounded were taken, to give blood for their colleagues. Muhammad Hafeez, 21, stripped off his sweater, which was pinned with a button in English saying, "Police is your friend," so doctors could treat shrapnel wounds to his shoulder. He speculated that the attack was carried out by Islamic radicals in retaliation for Pakistani army operations against insurgent hideouts in the north.
Families and friends of the victims streamed into the morgue, and often left a short time later, weeping into their cellphones.
Shakeel Shaukat, 27, waited outside to claim the body of his brother, Zaheer, 20, explaining that he had persuaded him to join the police in the first place.
"How can I face my other relatives, like my brothers and sisters and my mother?" Shaukat said in despair. "How can I face them, because I brought him for this job, in this city?"
Anderson reported from Islamabad.