RPT-Attacks in Lahore "aimed at Pakistan's heart"

Tue Mar 31, 2009 6:56am EDT

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(Repeats to fix link to story in para 2, no changes to text)

By Robert Birsel

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 31 (Reuters) - Militants who have launched two audacious attacks in the Pakistani city of Lahore in the past month want to show they can strike at the heart of the country's power establishment, police and an analyst said.

Militants firing rifles and throwing grenades stormed a police training academy in the eastern city on Monday, killing eight recruits, wounding scores and holding off police and troops for eight hours. [ID:nISL457124]

The attack, claimed by Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, came less than a month after a dozen gunmen attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team in the city, killing six police guards and a bus driver. [ID:nISL466449]

"It's piercing an arrow into the heart of the country," former Interior Ministry secretary Tasneem Noorani said on Tuesday.

Lahore, is capital of Punjab province, the country's most populous and prosperous province.

The country's second biggest city, with Mughal-era ruins and elegant, British colonial-era architecture, is also traditionally home to top bureaucrats and the military top brass.

The city has seen several bomb attacks over the past couple of years but nevertheless, it had felt much safer than other parts of the country, with fewer blast barriers outside important buildings.

Police said the attacks in Lahore in March were an unmistakable message.

"These two attacks in a month were meant to shake the government because they know launching attacks in Punjab means attacking the state," said senior police official Babur Ahmed.

"Attacking Lahore means attacking Punjab and that means you're attacking Pakistan. Punjab is Pakistan's controlling authority," he said.

"STRIKE ANYWHERE"

Ahmed said the police were not trained to handle militants using war weapons. Another senior police official said the police could not be blamed for security lapses.

"It's not a question of low security ... We can't put police everywhere, on every street," said the official, who declined to be identified.

"They want to send a message: a determined terrorist can strike anywhere," he said. "The only good thing is we've captured some of these terrorists alive. Let us investigate."

Four militants were killed and three were arrested during the gunbattle on Monday.

Militant violence has surged in nuclear-armed Pakistan since mid-2007, with numerous attacks on the security forces and government and Western targets.

The violence has raised fears about the year-old civilian government's ability to stand up to al Qaeda and their Pakistani Taliban allies based in lawless enclaves on the Afghan border.

The government has also been struggling to revive a flagging economy being kept afloat by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan agreed in November.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced a review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, vowing to tackle militants in the ungoverned Pakistani border areas. [ID:nN29484116]

Despite the attacks, Lahore, which is also Pakistan's cultural centre, was its bustling self on Tuesday.

"Obviously it disturbs people, but people are adapting to the changed circumstances," said Noorani.

"Lahore has been a very moderate and relaxed city with social and cultural functions and festivals. Unfortunately, that's been cut back but there's a lot of resilience." (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)





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