LAHORE, Pakistan | Attacks on three cities Thursday put Pakistan at the vortex of a “guerrilla war,” with militants shuttering the nation’s cultural capital of Lahore - a city of dance and music that had once vowed to stand up to the Taliban.
Coordinated assaults in quick succession targeted three security facilities in Lahore, underscoring the ability of militants to strike anywhere, while Pakistan’s army prepares for a ground assault on a militant stronghold near the Afghan border more than 300 miles away.
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against Islamic militants, has been hit by major attacks nearly every other day since a suicide bomber made it inside a secure U.N. compound in the capital, Islamabad, on Oct. 5. Five U.N. workers died in that assault, and more than 150 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since.
“The enemy has started a guerrilla war. The whole nation should be united against these handful of terrorists, and God willing we will defeat them,” Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. With attacks in Peshawar and Kohat, officials put Thursday’s death toll at least 40.
• Militants escalate Pakistan ‘guerrilla war’
In Washington, President Obama signed into law a bill giving Pakistan $7.5 billion in aid over the next five years for civilian projects such as schools.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the attacks showed that “the militants in Pakistan threaten both Pakistan and the United States.”
Most of the carnage in Lahore on Thursday took place between 9 and 10 a.m., when gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) near an open plaza at the city center. Similar and near-simultaneous attacks hit a police training academy and a separate academy for special forces, both on the outskirts of Lahore.
“Our city is under attack,” screamed a student at the Beaconhouse National University, one of the largest private universities in the country. “I can’t believe those idiots are striking us again and again.”
With tears flowing down her cheeks, she ran from the courtyard back to the safety of her classroom without giving her name.
Raees Khalid, 27, a fellow student watched, shook his head and said: “If we’re going to defeat the Taliban, we have to be stronger than this - much stronger.”
When the first shots rang out near the FIA building, classes were going on at the university.
Initially the students responded to the crack of gunfire with shoulder shrugs and a “what’s new” attitude.
Then gradually as the severity of the situation became known droves of students began expressing their rage at the attackers.
“They’re idiots,” and “They are bringing a bad name to Islam” were commonly heard opinions on campus. And then as the number of casualties rose, the same students who had vowed to keep attending classes were overcome with fear and went home.
Lahore, near the border with India and hundreds of miles from the nation’s militant-infested northwest, has been hit with terrorist attacks in the past. The FIA building was bombed in 2008 while the police academy was attacked in March.
But the precision and scope of Thursday’s operation was unprecedented.
“The Taliban have succeeded in one way,” said Imtiaz Rasool, a political analyst. “They have taken their battle from the North West Frontier Province and brought it to Punjab. Now in Peshawar, people fear walking on the streets and the same is happening in Lahore. Once fear comes to a city, the fight is almost over.” Lahore is the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
In Liberty Market, one of the most popular and bustling commercial districts in the city, streets were deserted and shopkeepers despondent.
“We have given up hope of the situation ever getting better,” said Riaz Khan, 40, a shop owner who is planning to close his doors soon. “The numerous bomb blasts have scared all the shoppers away.”
U.S. officials insist Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe from the militants.
“We see no evidence that [the militants] are going to take over the state,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after what was perhaps the most brazen attack of the past two weeks - a strike against Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon.
She spoke after a 22-hour standoff at army headquarters in Rawalpindi ended Sunday with 23 dead, including eight gunmen, who managed to penetrate the complex and take hostages.
A day after the siege ended, a bombing in Shangla near the Swat Valley killed more than 40.
Even before Thursday’s attack, one could see a quiet transformation of Lahore. Women have taken to the burqa, an all-covering robe with a screen over the face, in increasing numbers. CD and DVD shop owners have stopped playing loud music, and theater plays have almost completely come to a standstill.
Twenty-eight people died in Lahore on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse. They included 14 policemen, five civilians and nine attackers, provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the wire service. Several attackers killed themselves by detonating their vests before they could be captured.
In the northwest town of Kohat, 11 people died, including three policemen, when a suicide bomber rammed a van into the outer wall of a police station. In Peshawar, one child was killed by a car bombing on a residential building for government employees, Agence France-Presse reported.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s attacks. A Taliban alliance based in the tribal area of South Waziristan claimed responsibility for the strikes on the U.N. office and the army headquarters, calling them payback for the August death of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in an August rocket attack.
Pakistani troops have largely sealed off the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled. An estimated 10,000 fighters remain, awaiting an offensive by ground forces that officials say will begin any day.