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Pakistan bombs kill 24, wound more than 200

Image: Bomb explosion at the office of the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore, Pakistan
In one of the blasts in Lahore, an explosives-packed vehicle was detonated close to a building that housed federal police offices, officials said.Mohsin Raza   / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The spread of terrorism across Pakistan from its wild tribal regions to the cultural capital of Lahore on Tuesday adds to the pressure for a reconsideration of its U.S.-allied president's approach to countering al-Qaida and the Taliban as its new government prepares to take office.

After two deadly suicide bombings in its normally peaceful cultural capital, pressure grew for more dialogue with militants and less punitive military action that President Pervez Musharraf's opponents say have only fueled the violence.

At least 24 people died Tuesday and more than 200 were injured when bombers in explosives-laden vehicles devastated a police headquarters and a business near a house belonging to Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf quickly condemned the "savage" bombings and said the government would continue to fight terrorism "with full force," the official news agency reported. Authorities have blamed Taliban and al-Qaida militants for a recent surge in bombings.

But the winners of last month's elections accused the former army strongman of destabilizing the country with military operations near the Afghan border and even suggested that rogue forces were trying to undermine Pakistan's return to democracy.

"He has carried out indiscriminate operations in the tribal areas that have opened up new fault lines in Pakistani society," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the party set to partner with Bhutto's in the new government. "Unless he resigns, there will always be a cause for all these groups to carry on these activities."

Tuesday's blasts happened about 15 minutes apart in different districts of the eastern city of Lahore. The first tore the facade from the seven-story Federal Investigation Agency building as staff were beginning their working day.

City police Chief Malik Mohammed Iqbal said an explosives-packed vehicle was driven into a parking lot and detonated close to the building — which houses part of the federal police's anti-terrorism unit — devastating several offices on the lower floors and blowing out the walls around a stairwell.

Grainy footage from a surveillance camera shown on the private Aaj television channel showed the small truck running over a guard and barging through the unlocked gate seconds before the blast.

Al-Qaida-linked militants in Iraq have regularly used vehicles to launch massive attacks on buildings, but rarely has such damage been inflicted on a government building in Pakistan.

Deadly blow
Officials said 21 people were killed, including 16 police, and over 200 people were wounded. Doctors at Lahore hospitals said the dead included a 3-year-old girl, while more than 30 girls were injured by flying debris at a nearby elementary school.

The second all but flattened the office of an advertising agency in a residential neighborhood, about 15 miles away. Police said two children and the wife of the house's gardener were killed.

Officials declined to speculate about whether the Lahore residence of Zardari, less than yards away, was the intended target. Zardari, who succeeded Bhutto at the helm of her party, was in the capital, Islamabad, at the time.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said it was possible that "terrorists are trying to put maximum pressure on the government that is in the making" to soften their resolve against them.

Pakistan faced an enemy that is "nameless, faceless and there are people who are working in small groups," he said. He declined to identify any group suspected in Tuesday's attack.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's moderate, secular party, agreed that the blast seemed to be a message to Zardari and the party "to deter them from pursuing its democratic struggle."

Tuesday's violence was the first major act of terrorism since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party announced over the weekend that they would form a coalition government determined to reduce Musharraf's powers.

But Babar echoed Bhutto's oft-repeated suspicion that Islamist sympathizers embedded in Pakistan's powerful military-led establishment and intelligence agencies were involved in an attempt to keep her secular, moderate party out of power.

Sunday's coalition pact ended talk that her party could snub Sharif, its traditional rival, and tie up with the rump of Musharraf's ruling party, which suffered a heavy defeat in the Feb. 18 parliamentary vote.

He listed some of the other suicide attacks on the party over the past year, including the bombing of the parade to welcome Bhutto home from exile in October, which killed about 150 people, and the attack that killed her in December.

Even if militants were behind Tuesday's attacks, "I would also say that the sophistication and the persistence with which they are doing it cannot be without the support of some rogue elements," Babar said.

He declined to elaborate.

Until recently, Lahore — a metropolis of 7 million people that boasts Pakistan's grandest monuments and most vibrant intellectual scene — had been spared the suicide attacks that have struck all other major cities in the past year.

But now it has suffered three attacks within two months. On Jan. 10, a militant walked into a crowd of police guarding a courthouse and blew himself up, killing 24. A double suicide attack in Lahore killed four people at a navy training college last week.

The new parliament is to hold its first sitting on Monday, and Sharif's spokesman said lawmakers would quickly begin the task of drawing up a new policy on countering extremism.

Sharif has called for the war on terror to be redefined and for more dialogue with militants to try to halt the violence. Both he and Zardari have met U.S. officials to discuss security policy, but neither has laid out his ideas in detail.

Iqbal reiterated his party's demand that Musharraf step down. He said Pakistan should seek political and economic solutions to combat militancy and that dialogue was needed with different groups to bring peace.

Carrying out military operations "only to appease foreign powers must stop," Iqbal said.

Kamran Shafi, a prominent political analyst, forecast that the new government would try to avoid heavy-handed operations that have caused civilian casualties in the past and given militants a handy propaganda coup.

Their approach will be: "We've got to speak to them, they are our own people, and convince them to get away from terrorism, and if need be we will fight them," Shafi said.

Even some of Musharraf's backers are urging a rethink.

Mushahid Hussain, a senior member of Musharraf's former ruling party, said Pakistan had piled troops into the border without proper training or a strategy to end the impoverished region's isolation — resulting in the heavy casualties for both security forces and civilians that have dismayed many ordinary citizens.

He said the United States had then "outsourced" the war to NATO and Pakistan to focus on Iraq and only recently recognized its mistake.

"The blame-game won't help, what is needed is a policy review based on consultation and consensus," Hussain said.