ISLAMABAD — In the fifth terrorist attack this week in Pakistan, extremists set off twin suicide bombs Friday in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least 43 people, a reminder of the continued threat to the country despite an overall fall in violence.
The bloodiest strike in Pakistan this year saw twin attackers, on foot and wearing suicide jackets, detonate themselves in a busy market in a high-security military district in Lahore. The target appeared to be passing military vehicles but most of the victims were civilians.
Children crossing the road and people waiting at a bus stop were among the casualties of the blasts, which also ripped apart shops in the market. Witnesses said that bodies, some with missing limbs, were scattered across the area. Some 10 soldiers were among the dead, according to Lahore Police Chief Parvaiz Rathore. About 100 people were wounded.
"There were about 10 to 15 seconds between the blasts. Both were suicide attacks," a senior local government official, Sajjad Bhutta, said at the site. "The maximum preventative measures were being taken, but these people find support from somewhere."
The bombers struck at 1 p.m., around the time of Friday prayers, in the cantonment area of Lahore, home to the local army garrison and one of the city's most affluent residential districts. Lahore is the bustling cultural hub of Pakistan, which had enjoyed a period of relative peace in recent weeks. It's also the capital of Punjab province, the country's most densely populated area and its political heartland.
Five low-intensity blasts in Lahore in the evening, in different locations in a residential area across town, sent panicky locals running through the streets, but damage was reported to be minor.
The authorities regularly assert that the Taliban and other extremist groups have been smashed as a result of military operations, a claim that was repeated Friday.
"We broke their networks," provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said. "That's why they have not been able to strike for a considerable time."
It was the second bombing this week in Lahore, however, after the car bombing Monday of a police interrogation center, which killed 14 people. The other attacks in Pakistan this week included a gun and grenade assault on the office of World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian aid agency, in the North West Frontier Province, killing six Pakistani nationals on its staff.
The extremists "are trying to project their power, telling the government that they are still alive," said analyst Imtiaz Gul, the author of the book "The Al Qaeda Connection." "They are still far from broken. It's going to be a long haul."
Lahore was fully dragged last year into Pakistan's bloody insurgency — which claimed around 3,000 lives in 2009 — with a series of spectacular attacks, including a gun assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. The last major attack in Lahore was in December, when a market was bombed, killing at least 49 people.
Last year, Pakistani security forces took on the homegrown Taliban for the first time. There was an operation to clear extremists from the Swat valley, in the northwest, then a campaign in October in South Waziristan, on the Afghan border, the base of the Pakistani Taliban, that provoked a spate of terrorist reprisals. The country had been relatively peaceful this year, however.
Pakistani Taliban from the northwest have joined with militant groups from the Punjab, all closely allied to al Qaida, to form teams that can strike anywhere. Many of the attacks claimed by the Taliban are thought to be carried out by these groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a former sectarian organization. While there's been concerted action against the Taliban, the Punjabi groups have been left relatively untouched.
The extremists blame the military operations in the northwest and U.S. drone missile strikes on Pakistani territory for their attacks. Pakistan's recent arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders on its soil risk adding to its terrorist enemies.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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