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Militants attack 3 police sites in Lahore, Pakistan

At least 26 people, including some gunmen, are killed. In the northwest, a suicide bombing kills 10 at a police station.

October 16, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Militants struck targets across Pakistan on Thursday, killing at least 26 people, including 14 in nearly simultaneous attacks on police buildings in Lahore that demonstrated an ability to hit key state security installations seemingly at will.

The Lahore raids on three security compounds, in which nine militants died, were the latest in a wave of attacks that has targeted United Nations offices, markets and police facilities, leaving scores dead.

The violence in Pakistan's major cities threatens to undermine the public confidence that the government and military have won with an operation that flushed Taliban militants out of urban areas in the restive Swat district this year.

And it has debunked government assertions that the militants had been crippled by the Aug. 5 U.S. drone strike that killed longtime Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud.

The attacks are taking place on the cusp of a planned military offensive against the Taliban in its strongholds in Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan.

But it was Punjabi extremists, not the Taliban, who were believed to be behind Thursday's attacks in Lahore, the country's cultural capital, on its eastern border with India. Their targets were all symbols of the state security apparatus: the Federal Investigation Agency building, a police academy, and a center on the city's outskirts that provides counter-terrorism training to elite police forces.

The Lahore attacks were the latest example of the Pakistani Taliban joining forces with militants from Punjab, the most populous province. They raise the specter of more attacks in the country's heartland at a time when the military is occupied with defeating the Taliban along the Afghan border.

Speaking outside the Federal Investigation Agency building that was attacked, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the recent wave of violence suggests increased collaboration among the Pakistani Taliban, the Al Qaeda terrorist network and two Punjabi militant groups: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which primarily focus on Indian targets.

"Though the situation is critical," Malik told reporters, "God willing, we will get rid of these cruel militants and cleanse the country of them."

In Washington, where top officials continue a broad review of regional strategy, Pentagon and State Department officials portrayed the wave of assaults as an attempt to counter an increasingly effective Pakistani government offensive.

"These attacks are the result of the pressure they are putting on the militants," said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is blowback."

Still, the Lahore attacks elevated concern in the Pentagon, which earlier in the week was downplaying the spate of violence.

"It is evidence they have a real problem on their hands," said a senior Pentagon official. "But they realize they have a problem and are committed to dealing with it."

Analysts in Pakistan say the attacks indicate that the threat from the Taliban, which some observers believed had diminished after Mahsud's death and the Pakistani army's success in Swat, remains potent.

"After Mahsud's death, the government and the military thought that the Taliban would now go down, that they would become leaderless and wouldn't have the will to fight or carry on," said Javed Hussain, a retired brigadier general with the country's special forces unit.

"This was all wrong. Now what they are trying to do is to humiliate the government time and time again.

"They want people to lose confidence in the government and military's ability to provide protection," he said.

"And they want to warn the government that should the offensive in Waziristan take place, the Taliban will extend the battlefield to all parts of the country."

For months, the military has been preparing for that offensive by pounding Taliban hide-outs in Waziristan with airstrikes and by cutting off the militant group's supply and escape routes. The government has been saying almost daily that it is on the verge of launching the ground offensive.

Pakistani leaders have warned that the number of suicide bombings may increase dramatically once the offensive begins.

Militants have unleashed a wave of strikes with a regularity that has unnerved the nation. In the last 11 days, suicide bombing attacks have struck the United Nations' World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad, the capital, and crowded markets in the northwestern cities of Peshawar and Alpuri. At least 99 people were killed in those assaults.

Last weekend, a team of 10 militants raided the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, taking 42 security officers and civilian workers captive before commandos rescued the hostages. At least 19 people died in that attack.

Thursday's attacks began around 9:15 a.m. in Lahore, a city of 10 million. They paralyzed the city; as police helicopters hovered overhead, government offices shut down and merchants shuttered their storefronts.

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