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Asia Crisis

Pakistan Taliban claims Lahore attack

(Adds comment, detail, background)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, May 28 (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility on Thursday for a suicide gun and bomb attack in the city of Lahore the previous day that killed 24 people and wounded nearly 300. [ID:nISL356265]

The government said the attack in a high-security area where a police headquarters, emergency services building and a military intelligence office are located, was revenge for an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad. [ID:nISL483338]

The army moved against the militants in the Swat region late last month after the Taliban had seized a district only 100 km (60 miles) from the capital and a peace pact collapsed.

A militant commander loyal to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud also said the Lahore attack was in response to the offensive in Swat.

"We have achieved our target. We were looking for this target for a long time. It was a reaction to the Swat operation," the commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. --------------------------------------------------------------- For a graphic please click on:

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Militant violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has surged since mid-2007, with numerous attacks on the security forces, as well as on government and Western targets.[ID:nSP322730] The violence and a perception the government was being distracted by political squabbling and failing to act to stop the Taliban has alarmed the United Sates and other Western allies.

Pakistan is vital for U.S. plans to defeat al Qaeda and cut off support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"MAJOR ATTACKS"

Hakimullah Mehsud warned of more attacks.

"We want the people of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Multan to leave those cities as we plan major attacks against government facilities in coming days and weeks," he said.

The government had warned that militants might launch attacks in retaliation for the offensive in Swat, where the military says about 1,100 militants and about 60 soldiers have been killed. There has been no independent confirmation of those estimates.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters after the Lahore attack that the militants were on their last legs and getting desperate.

The car bomb brought down a government ambulance service building and damaged a nearby office of the military's main Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Two ISI officers and six lower-level agency officials were among those killed and security officials said the ISI office might have been the main target.

Lahore is capital of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and prosperous province. The country's second-biggest city is also traditionally home to top bureaucrats and senior military brass.

The city has seen several bomb attacks over the past couple of years, but it felt much safer than other parts of the country until March, when militants launched two brazen assaults. (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Augustine Anthony; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Valerie Lee) (For more stories on Pakistan click on [ID:nSP102615])

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