- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

LAHORE, PAKISTAN (AP) - Pakistani soldiers killed at least four gunmen who had seized a police academy Monday in a brazen attack that killed at least 11 officers and left at least 35 police held hostage.

The well-organized, highly coordinated assault came less than a month after an ambush on Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team in the heart of Lahore, underscoring the threat that militancy poses to the U.S.-allied, nuclear-armed country.

It prompted the country’s top civilian security official to say that militant groups were “destabilizing the country.”

Soldiers and other security forces surrounded the compound on the outskirts of the city, exchanging fire in televised scenes reminiscent of last November’s militant siege of the Indian city of Mumbai. Armored vehicles entered the compound while helicopters hovered overhead. Some police tried to escape by crawling on their hands and knees around the bodies of fallen officers.

Six hours after the initial assault, police captured one of the suspected gunmen, dragging him to a field outside the academy and kicking him. Soon afterward, four loud explosions rocked the scene. Government official Rao Iftikhar said four gunmen were killed, including three by army snipers. However, roughly 11 gunmen remained holed up on the top floor of a building, holding some 35 police hostage.



Reports also emanated from inside the compound. Inspector Mohammad Akram told Express News TV by phone that he and 20 other policemen were locked in a room inside one of the buildings.

“We are hearing gunshots very close to us. We are sitting ducks. We request that please for God’s sake take us out,” he said in a low voice. “Everybody ran here and there and took shelter wherever they found.”

Pakistan has endured scores of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years, and it faces tremendous U.S. 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, including in eastern Punjab province, of which Lahore is capital.

Monday’s attack occurred close to the Indian border. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

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 U.S. officials complain the country’s spy agencies still keep ties with some of the insurgent groups.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told state-run TV that Pakistan’s police are not equipped to fight the terror wave.

“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 provincial governor, Salman Taseer, told reporters at a hospital that an army brigade had “laid a complete siege,” adding that a curfew was imposed in the neighborhood.

Lahore, a vibrant metropolis considered by many to be Pakistan’s cultural capital, seems to be an increasingly alluring target for militants. In early March, a group of gunmen ambushed the visiting cricket team in a crowded city traffic circle, sparking a battle that left six police officers and a driver dead and wounded several players.

Those gunmen walked away unscathed, and to date they have not been publicly identified.

Monday’s attack occurred as dozens of the officers carried out morning drills at the Manawan Police Training School.

“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.

At least 11 police officers died in the attack, police official Ali Nawaz told The Associated Press. Mobin, another police official, told the AP that at least 91 wounded police were sent to hospitals. About 700 trainee officers were inside the academy at the time.

“Some of the attackers are wearing (police) uniforms,” police officer Ahsan Younus told the AP. “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 escape the attack. Some crouched behind the concrete wall of the compound, their rifles pointed in the direction of the parade ground where police said the attack took place.

Farther back, masses of security forces and civilians monitored the tense standoff, taking shelter behind the tangled web of security and rescue vehicles. A helicopter hovered over the scene, as officers were shown briefing security forces.

Pakistan’s stability is of paramount concern to the U.S., 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 U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In unveiling a new strategy for Afghanistan last week, 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.

Monday’s ambush and siege-style attack was reminiscent of the assaults on the Sri Lankan team and last year’s siege of the Indian city of Mumbai. The Sri Lankan attack also had features such as heavily armed, backpack-toting gunmen that were hallmarks of the Mumbai attack.

India has blamed the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai assault, and Pakistan has taken several of the outfit’s alleged leaders into custody. Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is largely based in eastern Punjab province, has denied involvement in either Mumbai or the cricket team attack.

Several militant groups operate well beyond Pakistan’s northwest. Some of them, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, have their roots in the Kashmir dispute with India, and Pakistani spy agencies are believed to have helped set them up.

___

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad, Sebastian Abbot, Nahal Toosi and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Khalid Tanveer in Lahore contributed to this report.

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