KARACHI, Pakistan — A massive vehicle bomb blew up a compound of Karachi's counterterrorism police Thursday, the biggest attack in Pakistan's most populous city in the current campaign of al Qaida-inspired violence. At least 15 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded, officials and witnesses said.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and said it was retaliating for U.S. missile strikes, which target suspected militants in the country's tribal area.
The southern port city, Pakistan's commercial hub, had up to now escaped the full force of the three-year-long terrorist assault on the country. The attack, in a high security zone, was a clear demonstration of the deadly capability and intent of the extremists, following a relatively peaceful recent period in the country.
Pakistan, where the leadership of both al Qaida and the Taliban are thought to be hiding, is a key U.S. anti-terror ally but has been criticized by successive U.S. administrations for cracking down on groups that target Pakistan, while allowing sanctuary for those attacking the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.
The assault began when six or more gunmen opened fire on the guards on duty at the office of the Crime Investigation Department, which houses police counterterrorism operations. Local residents said hand grenades were also thrown and that the shooting lasted about 20 minutes. That allowed the attackers to drive in with the bomb, thought to be contained in a small truck, at around 9.30 p.m.
The blast was felt for miles across Karachi. At least five police officers were among the dead.
"There was gunfire, we all scattered. God saved me, I don't know what happened next," said one police officer, who gave his name only as Abdullah and was working in a building that was partially damaged.
News reports said that more than half a ton of explosives were used in the blast.
The compound was also used to keep terrorist suspects in detention. Earlier this week, the department arrested six members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a highly trained Pakistani extremist group that's been linked to many of the high profile attacks in recent years, even though the Pakistani Taliban routinely claims responsibility. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi detainees were presented before a court in Karachi earlier Thursday.
The explosion destroyed the front part of the complex, with people buried under the rubble. Some had to be dug out by hand. The injured and dead were hurried away on stretchers to a line of waiting ambulances. At the back of the compound, another building had its front ripped off. The explosion tossed cars across the compound and left a crater about 35 feet across and 15 feet deep.
"There was firing for 15 to 20 minutes, then a very big explosion," said Asad Shah, who lives in an adjacent apartment block that was damaged.
The counterterrorism office was within Karachi's closely protected "red zone," which contains the offices of top officials, five-star hotels and diplomatic missions, including the U.S. consulate, which was not damaged. Aziz Khan, who came to the blast site, said he was half a mile away at the time of the explosion, but it was so powerful that it felt as if it had gone off next door.
The attack will be used politically in a city where the biggest party, known as the MQM, claims that "Talibanization" is taking place and action is not being taken by the government.
"These extremists in Karachi have to be targeted," said Maqeen Alam, a member of the provincial parliament for the MQM, who arrived at the scene. "This (attack) has to be seen as a massive security failure."
Karachi, a sprawling metropolis of 18 million and a volatile mix of ethnic groups, frequently erupts into violence. Among the biggest groups are the Pashtuns, the clan that comprises most of the Taliban and is Afghanistan's largest ethnicity. Extremists find it easy to hide in Karachi's run-down apartment blocks and slums, security officials say.
The provincial interior minister, Zulfiqar Mirza, who belongs to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, compared Thursday's bombing to the 2008 explosion at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, which became a symbol of Pakistan's struggle against extremism. But the party denies that Karachi is in danger of being "Talibanized."
Karachi has suffered two attacks by men wearing suicide vests in the past couple of years, but it had been spared the vehicle-borne bombs that have hit other cities.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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