Lahore: A group of gunmen attacked a police academy and rampaged through it for hours on Monday, throwing grenades, seizing hostages and killing at least 11 officers before being overpowered by Pakistani security forces in armored vehicles and helicopters, authorities said.
Six militants were arrested and eight others were killed in the eight-hour battle to retake the facility on the outskirts of this city in eastern Pakistan, said Rao Iftikhar, a top government official in Punjab province.
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The highly coordinated attack underscored the threat that militancy poses to the US-allied, nuclear-armed country and prompted Pakistan’s top civilian security official to say that militant groups were “destabilizing the country.”
The attack on the Manawan Police Training School began as dozens of the officers carried out morning drills. About 700 trainees were inside at the time.
“We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions,” said Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital. He described the attackers as bearded and young.
“Some of the attackers are wearing (police) uniforms,” officer Ahsan Younus told The Associated Press. “They have also taken some of our police as hostage.”
TV footage showed several frightened police officers jumping over the wall of the academy to flee the attack. Some crouched behind the wall of the compound, their rifles pointed in the direction of the parade ground where police said the attack took place.
Further back, masses of security forces and civilians monitored the tense standoff, taking shelter behind security and rescue vehicles.
The forces had surrounded the compound, exchanging fire in televised scenes reminiscent of the militant siege in the Indian city of Mumbai in November and the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricketers earlier this month in Lahore.
Armored vehicles entered the compound while helicopters hovered overhead. At times, explosions rocked the scene.
At one point, security forces cornered several militants on the top floor of a building on the compound, where the gunmen held about 35 hostages, Iftikhar said.
“The eight hours were like eight centuries,” said Mohammad Salman, 23, one of the hostages. “It was like I died several times. I had made up my mind that it was all over.”
Police captured one of the suspected gunmen six hours after the initial assault, dragging the scruffy, bearded man to a field outside the academy and kicking him.
Iftikhar confirmed that six militants were arrested. Of the eight dead, two blew themselves up, he said, adding that he would provide a more exact death toll from the brazen assault later.
On the roof of the building where hostages were kept, an AP photographer saw body parts, blood and spent ammunition strewn about, and several police officers - apparently hostages - came out with their hands above their heads in fear.
No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pakistan has endured scores of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years, and it faces tremendous US pressure to eradicate al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents on its soil. Most of the violence occurs along the country’s northwest border with Afghanistan, but attacks have occurred in all the major cities.
Monday’s attack occurred close to the Indian border.
The attacks pose a major threat to the weak, year-old civilian administration of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, which has been gripped with political turmoil in recent weeks. The Obama administration has warned Pakistan that militancy poses a threat to the nation’s very existence, while US officials complain the country’s spy agencies still keep ties with some of the insurgent groups.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told state-run TV that Pakistan’s police are not equipped to fight the wave of terrorism.
“In our country, at our different borders, arms are coming in, stinger missiles are coming in, rocket launchers are coming in, heavy equipment is coming, it should be stopped,” Malik said. “Obviously, whoever did this attack has attacked our country’s stability.”
The brazen assault using commando-style tactics also was reminiscent of measures used by the militants who laid siege to several parts of Mumbai last year for three days. The Sri Lankan attack also had similar features - including heavily armed, backpack-toting gunmen - but it was much quicker. Observers have since speculated that those attackers might have hoped to grab hostages as well.
Several militant groups operate well beyond Pakistan’s northwest. Some of them, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, have their roots in the Kashmir, and Pakistani spy agencies are believed to have helped set them up.
Pakistan’s stability is of paramount concern to the US, which is fighting a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan more than seven years after the American-led invasion ousted the militant regime from power there. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to hide out in Pakistan’s northwest while planning attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
In unveiling a new strategy for Afghanistan last week, President Barack Obama pledged more aid to Pakistan but warned it not to expect a “blank check” without any accountability. Obama pledged increased assistance to Pakistani security forces, specifically equipment for the military.