Pakistan was reeling last night after the Taliban intensified its bloody campaign of violence, launching five separate attacks in a single day, including the first ever with female assailants.
At least 28 victims died in three attacks carried out by gunmen on police targets in Lahore and two car bombs in Kohat and Peshawar. "The enemy has started a guerrilla war," said the Interior Minister Rehman Malik. "The whole nation should be united against these handful of terrorists, and God willing we will defeat them."
Yesterday was the fifth day of bloodshed in Pakistan in the past week-and-a-half. The violence, which has claimed more than 100 victims and demonstrated the Taliban's brutal reach across the country, comes as Pakistan launches a series of air strikes on South Waziristan, paving the way for what it has promised will be an ambitious army ground offensive on the Taliban stronghold.
The highly co-ordinated Lahore attacks began at 9am, unfolding simultaneously in three separate locations including the Federal Investigation Agency, the national law enforcement body. They represented the region's most sophisticated militant assault since last November's bloodshed in Mumbai. Like those attackers, the Lahore teams were equipped with dried fruit, apparently prepared to dig in for the long haul.
Normally-bustling Lahore was brought to a standstill as security forces spent hours exchanging gunfire with the militants. The longest siege took place at an elite commando training facility in Badian, near the airport.
The attackers scaled the back wall, with some standing on the roof shooting at security forces and throwing grenades in a stand-off that lasted four hours. "They [the militants] were wearing black, all black," said Inam Mansoor, an ambulance driver who helped recover the injured from the compound. "They were carrying guns and had backpacks."
The Interior Minister said that the attackers included three women – the first time that women have been involved in militant violence in Pakistan. There is speculation of the involvement of female madrassa students from Islamabad's Red Mosque, the scene of a deadly siege in July 2007, who travelled to southern Punjab in the aftermath.
Lt. Gen. Shafqat Ahmad said five attackers died in the fighting – three were killed in the firefight and two more were killed when they blew themselves up.
Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, gunmen entered the Federal Investigation Agency building, which was targeted with a truck bomb eighteen months ago, when 21 people were killed. yesterday, four government employees and a bystander lost their lives. At the Manawan police training academy, which had already been targeted earlier this year, nine police officers and four militants were killed.
Before the violence escalated in Lahore a suicide car bomb was detonated near a police station in the north-west city of Kohat, killing three police officers and eight civilians. Finishing off the bloody day, another car bomb exploded in Peshawar, outside the residence of the province's chief minister's driver. A six-year-old boy was killed, while nine others, mainly women and children, were badly wounded.
The attacks, which came just days after a daring raid on the army quarters in Rawalpindi, have raised fears of a deeper plunge into chaos as Taliban militants based along the Afghan border and in the north-west have demonstrated their ability to strike across the country. Last night security was being beefed up in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and residents in the capital, Islamabad were also braced for the worst.
Of particular concern is the apparent operational nexus that has emerged between the Pakistani Taliban, based in the tribal areas, and militants from the heartland province of Punjab.
Sajjad Bhutta, a senior government official, said that the attackers who unleashed yesterday's violence appeared to be a mixture of both. Many were wearing suicide vests and blew themselves up when cornered. "They were not here to live. They were here to die. Each time they were injured, they blew themselves up," he said.
In recent years militant groups, once nurtured by the Pakistan army to lead an anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir, and vicious sectarian groups have drawn closer to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa'ida.
Splinter groups of the notorious Jaish-e-Mohammad were recently involved in fighting against the Pakistan army in the Swat Valley. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, considered by some to be al-Qa'ida's Pakistan "franchise", is believed to have been involved in attacks on the Islamabad Marriott and the Sri Lankan cricket team.
In June Pakistan's government ordered the army to launch an offensive in South Waziristan, believed to be the lair of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants. Since then the military had been conducting air and artillery strikes to soften up militant defences. The government says the land assault against an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban militants is imminent, and that the army will decide when to send in the ground troops. But in the meantime the Taliban is getting plenty of retaliation.
In a statement, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi last night said that the country would not be swayed from its tactics. "Such barbaric, inhuman and un-Islamic terrorist acts only strengthen our resolve to fight terrorism with more vitality," he said.