, LAHORE, May 27 – A suicide car bomb attack flattened a police building in Pakistan’s city of Lahore, killing 23 people in what the government branded revenge for an offensive against the Taliban.
The blast – the third deadly attack to rock the country’s liberal cultural capital in as many months – points to a widening net of Islamist violence which has killed more than 1,800 people across Pakistan in less than two years.
At least two attackers in a vehicle packed with explosives tried to ram a barrier outside the police emergency response unit, adjacent to the provincial headquarters of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, officials said.
The assailants opened fire at the security guards but they failed to storm the checkpoint, instead hitting the barrier, exploding into a ball of fire on the road and flattening the building, police and administration officials said.
Authorities said 250 people were wounded in the attack.
"I heard firing and then a huge blast," said one policeman who staggered out of the rubble, saying that there were 30-35 policemen inside.
"The building collapsed. I was at the back of the building and am fortunately alive," he told reporters.
Rescue workers ferried out the injured on their backs, stumbling over the debris, while people tried to dig out one man in a traditional white shirt who lay trapped and helpless under stones and wooden planks.
The force of the explosion damaged a petrol station and nearby buildings in the heart of Lahore’s commercial district, two months after a deadly assault on a police academy near Lahore claimed by the Taliban.
"It was a suicide car bomb attack," police official Omar Ahmad told AFP.
There was no immediate claim for the blast but immediate suspicion fell on Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked groups as the authorities branded the attack revenge for its latest offensive against the Taliban in the northwest.
"Enemies of Pakistan who want to destabilise the country are coming here after their defeat in Swat," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters.
"There is a war and this is a war for our survival," he added.
Pakistan’s military has been locked in a one-month offensive against Taliban militants in three regions of the northwest, which the authorities say has killed around 1,190 extremists and sent 2.4 million people fleeing their homes.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the blast and blamed "state enemies" for the carnage, as he expressed his condolences for the loss of life.
The chief of Lahore’s city administration, Sajjad Bhutta, said 23 people were killed in the attack and around 250 others wounded.
"A vehicle bomb exploded just outside the police rescue offices, destroying the office, damaging nearby buildings and injuring people," he told reporters.
Local television showed images of frantic crowds gathering around the destroyed buildings, as volunteers picked through the rubble and twisted metal. The windows of a nearby hospital were also blown out, witnesses said.
Cars were flattened, with rows of charred motorcycles knocked down or destroyed by the explosion.
Police sub-inspector Khalid Baig said some policemen managed to escape with injuries, but that around 30 to 35 policemen had been trapped under the debris.
Lahore has been increasingly rocked by violent attacks.
On March 30, attackers armed with guns, grenades and suicide vests stormed a police training centre on the outskirts of the city, unleashing eight hours of gun battles and killing seven police cadets and a civilian.
That attack was claimed by Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud — a man with a five-million-dollar bounty on his head offered by the United States — who threatened to carry out further attacks across the country.
On March 3, gunmen ambushed the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in Lahore on its way to a test match with Pakistan that left eight Pakistanis dead and ended hopes of the country hosting international sport in the immediate future.