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Monday, 30 March 2009

Gunmen Attack Police Academy in Pakistan

Washington Post Foreign Service 
Monday, March 30, 2009; 9:53 AM

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 30--Gunmen armed with grenades and assault weapons invaded a police training compound near this Pakistani city Monday, battling security forces and holding dozens of police trainees hostage for more than seven hours before being overpowered.

There were conflicting reports about how many people were killed in the attack, although military and police commanders said at least eight police cadets and four assailants had died, and dozens injured. After army and police commandos stormed the rural compound about 4 p.m., the surviving attackers surrendered on a rooftop. No group has claimed responsibility for the assault.

It was the second major terror attack this month in Lahore, a bustling provincial capital known for its cultural and political prominence. On March 3, a squad of gunmen assaulted a bus full of cricket players visiting from Sri Lanka, leaving six people dead and effectively ending Pakistan's ability to host international sporting events.

The brazen, well-coordinated attack Monday by a squad of 15 to 20 assailants underscored the country's vulnerability to terrorism and growing international concerns about whether its weak, year-old civilian government is equipped to fight back.

It also followed a suicide bombing Friday in a northwest Pakistan mosque that killed more than 50 people. But such attacks have been common in the turbulent northwest region near the Afghan border. In contrast, the growing number of attacks in Punjab, once considered relatively safe, is arousing new alarm among Pakistanis who once viewed terrorism as a distant regional problem.

Analysts speculated that Monday's attack was intended to challenge Pakistan's anti-terrorist resolve, just as Islamabad has embraced a major new U.S. strategy that offers generous economic aid in return for tougher, more effective actions against violent Islamist extremists.


The attack on the police training center also raised the prospect of new tensions between Pakistan and India, longtime nuclear-armed adversaries and neighbors who have accused each other of abetting Islamist terrorism. The site of the assault was less than five miles from Wagah, the major border crossing point with India, and was reminiscent of a three-day siege by gunmen in Mumbai last November that killed more than 160 people.

Pakistan's top civilian security official, who has previously played down the magnitude of terrorist violence in Pakistan, asserted Monday that militant groups are "destabilizing the country." He implied that the attackers came from outside Pakistan, saying that a variety of heavy weapons are entering Pakistan's borders and "should be stopped."

Witnesses to the day-long siege at the Manawan Police Training School, including police trainees who managed to escape the compound as the fighting continued, said they heard the attackers speaking in Punjabi and in a dialect of southeast Pakistan.

The escapees described seeing between 15 and 20 armed men in their 20s, many of whom had beards and some of whom wore suicide vests. They said some of the attackers were dressed in police uniforms, while others were wearing masks.

The attack began around 7:30 a.m., when several hundred trainees were doing exercises on a parade field. Witnesses said they heard a series of loud explosions and then panic erupted, with recruits running in all directions and trying to escape.

"It was beyond terrible. They had so much ammunition with them and the explosions came so fast. Everyone was running for their lives," said Mohammed Irfan, 22, who joined the police six months ago. He escaped from the compound shortly after noon, but more than 30 other hostages remained trapped inside for several more hours.

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