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6 Pakistani police trainees killed in attack

Gunmen hold academy for several hours

Officer trainees held hostage by extremists were freed by colleagues as shooting continued inside the police training school. Officer trainees held hostage by extremists were freed by colleagues as shooting continued inside the police training school. (Emilio Morenatti/ Associated Press)
By Babar Dogar
Associated Press / March 31, 2009
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LAHORE, Pakistan - A group of gunmen, some in police uniform, attacked a police academy yesterday and held it for hours, seizing hostages, throwing grenades and killing at least six officer trainees before being overpowered by Pakistani commandos.

Four of the suspected militants were arrested and at least three gunmen blew themselves up in the eight-hour battle to retake the compound on the outskirts of Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, said Rao Iftikhar, a top government official in Punjab province.

He said three other bodies were still unidentified.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said one of the arrested men was Afghan, and that investigators believe the attack may have had its roots along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants have hideouts. But Malik also pointed fingers at a Punjab-based Sunni extremist group and declined to rule out an Indian role.

Meanwhile, a member of the Pakistani Taliban who uses the name Omar Farooq said by phone that a little-known group called Fedayeen al-Islam was behind the attack and that he was speaking on their behalf.

"As long as the Pakistan troops do not leave tribal areas, these attacks would continue," he said, referring to military operations in the lawless regions next to Afghanistan.

Officials said more than 90 officers were wounded and that some of the attackers wore police uniforms in yesterday's attack. As the siege ended, black-clad Pakistani commandos fired their guns in the air in celebration at the top of the building, shouting "God is Great!" and "Long live Punjab police!"

The highly coordinated attack underscored the threat that militancy poses to the US-allied, nuclear-armed country. It prompted Malik, Pakistan's top civilian security official, to say that militant groups were "destabilizing the country."

The ambush on the Manawan Police Training School began as dozens of the officers carried out morning drills. About 700 trainees were inside at the time.

"We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions," said Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital. He described the attackers as bearded and young.

TV footage showed several frightened police officers jumping over the wall of the academy to flee. Some crouched behind the wall of the compound, their rifles pointed toward the parade ground where police said the attack took place. Farther back, masses of security forces and civilians monitored the tense standoff, taking shelter behind security and rescue vehicles.

The forces had surrounded the compound, exchanging fire in televised scenes reminiscent of the militant siege in the Indian city of Mumbai in November and the attack on Sri Lanka's cricketers earlier this month in Lahore.

Armored vehicles entered the compound while helicopters hovered overhead. At times, explosions rocked the scene.

At one point, security forces cornered several militants on the top floor of a building on the compound, where the gunmen held about 35 hostages, Iftikhar said.

"The eight hours were like eight centuries," said Mohammad Salman, 23, one of the hostages. "It was like I died several times. I had made up my mind that it was all over."

Police captured one of the suspected gunmen six hours after the initial assault, dragging the scruffy, bearded man to a field outside the academy and kicking him.

On the roof of the building where hostages were kept, an AP photographer saw body parts, blood and spent ammunition strewn about, and several police officers - apparently hostages - came out with their hands above their heads.

Pakistan has endured scores of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years, and it faces tremendous US pressure to eradicate Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents on its soil. Most of the violence occurs along the country's northwest border with Afghanistan, but attacks have occurred in all the major cities.

Yesterday's attack occurred close to the Indian border.

The attacks pose a major test for the weak, year-old civilian administration of President Asif Ali Zardari, which has been gripped with political turmoil in recent weeks. The Obama administration has warned Pakistan that militancy threatens the nation's very existence, while US officials complain the country's spy agencies still keep ties with some of the insurgent groups.

Malik said Pakistan's integrity was "in danger at this time" and suggested that a foreign country was interfering in the country's domestic affairs, a possible reference to longtime foe India.

"Some rival country, or some hostile [intelligence] agency is definitely out to destabilize our democratic forces," he said.

Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon of India told reporters his country was "deeply saddened and shocked by the events in Lahore."

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