Pakistani troops and paramilitaries overpowered a group of militants who took over the police training academy in Lahore and killed at least 20 people during a seven-hour siege today.
Television showed footage of security services celebrating on the rooftop of the academy building, firing their guns into the air.
At least four of the attackers were reported to have been killed, and a fifth suspect arrested. The fate of around 11 gunmen who had been holding out on the top floor of the police academy, along with an estimated 35 hostages, is as yet unconfirmed.
At least 11 police officers are reported to be among the 20 dead in the initial commando-style assault by the militants, which had similarities to the attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in the same city this month. As many as 90 were reported injured.
As in the earlier incident the militants appear to be well-trained and organised, all apparently carrying backpacks full of arms and equipment and at least some disguised in police uniforms.
Reports from inside the compound bore witness to the ferocity of the militants’ early assault, which began at about 7.20am when up to 850 police recruits were busy with morning drill at the academy.
Amjad Ahmad, a police official, said that the attackers had got in by killing the security guards at the rear entrance to the Manawan police academy.
“There are 10 to 12 terrorists, half of them wearing police uniform and half of them in plain clothes, wearing sports kit. They are carrying bags on their shoulders,” said Mr Ahmad.
A police officer at the scene said that the militants split up and headed for the parade ground. “The gunmen attacked recruits from four sides when [the recruits] were doing their routine morning drills.”
One of the recruits, recovering in hospital, said: “First a hand grenade came over the wall. Then seven to eight attackers came inside and started firing indiscriminately.
“One was wearing white dress and another fired from the stage. It seemed they wanted maximum loss of life and they fired at anything which moved. I kept crawling and a rescue vehicle took me away.”
Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital, described the attackers as bearded and young. “We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions,” he said.
Reporters said that they saw a police armoured personnel carrier drive into the compound and exchange fire with the militants, then withdraw.
Pakistan television showed images of about 12 people in police uniform lying on a parade ground, some apparently dead while others were trying to crawl to cover. Other injured people were being carried out on sheets by rescuers willing to brave the heavy gunfire. One officer, shirtless and clutching a bullet wound in his arm that was bleeding heavily, was able to walk away from the parade ground and was hurried into an ambulance.
Mohammed Riaz, one of the recruits, told Pakistan’s Aaj television station how he and 11 other officers and cadets had barricaded themselves into a room and were still waiting for help to arrive.
“There were three or four back-to-back blasts from hand grenades and rocket launchers,” shouted Mr Riaz, above the noise of explosions.
“When the firing started, 12 of us locked ourselves in a room. We can’t get out because there is intense firing.”
Armed soldiers and paramilitary troops wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests sealed off the compound.
In early March, a group of gunmen ambushed the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team as their tour bus rounded a roundabout near the Lahore cricket ground, sparking a battle that left six police officers and a driver dead and wounded several of the players.
In both incidents, well-trained gunmen armed with assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers mounted an organised and deadly assault.
“There is great similarity between the two incidents,” said Afzal Shigri, a former senior police officer. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In the cricket team attack all the militants escaped unhurt, however, melting away into the city, whereas on this occasion the attacking force does not seem to have tried to get away.
“Militants trained in war in Afghanistan could be involved in the terrorist attacks, ” said Rehman Malik, the interior minister.
The attack underscored the growing threat of militancy in Pakistan, which is under US pressure to battle al-Qaeda and Taleban militants on its soil.
Most of the militant violence has occurred along Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan, but its eastern front has not escaped, with Lahore witnessing some brazen assaults.
Analysts said that today’s attack was a firm message to President Obama, who announced on Friday that he was tripling US aid to the region in a strategy aimed at reversing the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.