Offensive in Swat led to Lahore attack: Taliban

LAHORE: The Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility on Thursday for a deadly bomb and gun attack on police and intelligence agency offices, saying it was revenge for the army’s current offensive against militants in the

country’s northwest.

Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, told Associated Press in a telephone call that yesterday’s suicide attack in Lahore “was in response to the Swat operation where innocent people have been killed.”

About 30 people died and more than 300 were wounded when gunmen fired and lobbed grenades at offices of the police and top intelligence agency, then detonated an explosive-laden van in a busy street in Pakistan’s second-largest city — a major cultural centre and a hub for the armed services.

A little-known group calling itself the Taliban Movement in Punjab has also claimed responsibility for the attack. The claim could not be verified, and the militant group’s relationship to the Taliban was unclear.

The attack on Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, was far from the restive northwestern Afghan border region where the Taliban have established strongholds in the Swat Valley.

The military launched a major offensive in the Swat region late last month after the Taliban seized control of a neighbouring district in a bold bid to extend their influence.

Washington and other Western allies see the campaign as a test of the Pakistani government’s resolve to take on the spread of militancy.

Brigadier Tahir Hamid, the commander of military operations in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley, said today the militants had suffered “huge casualties” in the fighting and up to 70 percent of the town was now in government control.

The fighting has destroyed homes and other private property in the region, and prompted more than two million people to flee and thousands of others to hunker down under stiff curfew restrictions.

Aid officials warn both situations could turn into humanitarian disasters.

Four soldiers and seven militants were killed in the fighting in the last 24 hours, the military said today.

It claims more than 1,000 militants have died in total, though access to the region is restricted and the tally cannot be independently confirmed.

Troops were consolidating positions in the valley and clearing improvised bombs, the military said. They also distributed rations to 70,000 people yesterday, most of them in Mingora.

The attack was the third since March in Lahore, following deadly assaults on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy. Officials fear militants may be choosing targets there to make the point that nowhere is beyond their reach.

The site was cordoned off today while officials from electricity and public works departments surveyed the damage. Senior army command and civil administration officials were visiting as well. Hospital officials said 314 people were taken to three medical centres after the blast. Eighty were still being treated today, including 10 in critical condition.

The military released a transcript yesterday of what it said was an intercepted phone call made by the Taliban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, in which he sought help from militants in Waziristan to take revenge on military commanders in Punjab for the Swat offensive. Waziristan abuts Punjab.

Khan asked the recipient of the call, who was not identified, to target “generals or colonels from Punjab so that they feel the pain” of people suffering in Swat, according to the transcript.