Suicide bomber kills at least 15 in Pakistani court

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed 15 people, including a judge, in a courtroom in the city of Quetta on Saturday, the latest in a series of suicide blasts to have sent shudders through the country.

Pakistani officials examine a court room after a suspected suicide bomb attack in Quetta February 17, 2007. At least 12 people including a judge were killed in the attack on a court room in the southwestern pakistani city of Quetta. REUTERS/Rizwan Saeed

Intelligence officials have attributed other attacks to sectarian Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda and groups operating from tribal areas, regarded as hotbeds of support for the Taliban.

Police made a string of arrests this week, including two suicide bomb teams caught in southern Pakistan.

The bomb in Quetta exploded while a lower court was in session. A senior judge and six lawyers were among those killed, police in the capital of Baluchistan province said.

“According to our reports a man entered the room and blew himself up. A head has been found,” Baluchistan province Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yousuf said.

“It could be a continuation of what is happening in other parts of the country.”

At least 25 people were injured and police chief Rahu Khan Brohi told Reuters six of them were in a critical condition.

The suicide attacks started after an army air strike on a militant base in South Waziristan tribal region in mid-January.

Including the death toll from Quetta, nearly 45 people have been killed in bomb attacks since then, as militants have sought to destabilize President Pervez Musharraf’s government and weaken his resolve to confront the Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies.

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Police arrested two suicide bomb teams in southern Sindh province on Friday, and identified them as factions of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim sectarian militant group that has established ties with al Qaeda.

One team of three militants was captured after a gunfight in the southern city of Karachi, and another team of three was caught in the evening boarding a train at Sukkur, 515 km (321 miles) northeast of the port city.

“We found explosives, splinters, circuits and jackets used in suicide bombings, as well as Jihadi literature on them,” district police officer Mazhar Nawaz, told Reuters from Sukkur.

Police said the militants arrested in Karachi and Sukkur had been planning attacks on Pakistan’s Muslim Shi’ite minority at the end of the holy month of Muharram, which falls in the first week of March.

On Thursday , police arrested two members of Laskar-e-Jhangvi in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next door to Islamabad.

Road blocks had been set up in Islamabad, and police were stopping and questioning drivers of small cars, taxis and trucks. Foreign embassies have told their staff to limit their travel in the capital.

Officials in Quetta were unsure who carried out Saturday’s blast.

“Initially we suspect nationalist extremists, as well as Afghan Taliban could be behind the attack,” Razak Bugti, a spokesman for the Baluchistan government, said.

Television footage from the wrecked courthouse showed people and police walking through pools of blood, collecting belongings. Body parts and torn clothes could be seen all around.

Pakistan has been under mounting pressure from the United States and Afghanistan to tackle Taliban sanctuaries on its territory.

Taliban leaders are widely believed to be operating from in and around Quetta, capital of the restive province of Baluchistan, though Pakistan consistently denies their presence.

Baluchistan is also beset with unrest due to ethnic Baluch militants, who are fighting for greater autonomy.