MULTAN, Pakistan (AP) – A team of militants launched a gun, rocket and suicide attack on an intelligence office in central Pakistan on Tuesday, killing 12 people in a strike that showed the insurgents can hit deep in the heart of the country.
The raid in Multan signaled the relentless determination of militants, despite being pressured by a major army offensive in one of their Afghan border havens. It came a day after twin bombings at a market in the eastern city of Lahore killed 49.
Tuesday’s blast ripped the facades off of several buildings in a part of the town largely reserved for government and security agencies. Also damaged was the apparent target of the blast, a building housing an office of Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.
Senior police officer Agha Yusuf said at least three militants in a car carried out the attack. One of them first fired a rocket and an automatic weapon at a police checkpoint. Then the men drove the car to the intelligence agency and detonated it. He said security force members were among the 12 dead. The attack came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited nearby Afghanistan, where he said Washington was ready to work more closely with Pakistan to fight the militants.
“The more they get attacked internally … the more open they may be to additional help from us. But we are prepared to expand that relationship at any pace they are prepared to accept,” he said.
The U.S. has waged its own campaign of missile strikes against insurgent targets in the border region. The latest suspected airstrike destroyed a car carrying three people in a village near Mir Ali, a main town in North Waziristan.
The identities of the three dead were not immediately known, said two intelligence officials.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Most militant attacks in recent weeks have been directed at security forces, though several have targeted crowded public spaces such as markets, apparently to create public anger and increase pressure on the government to call a halt to the South Waziristan offensive. At least 400 people have been killed since October.
The Taliban generally claim responsibility for attacks on security officers, but not those that kill civilians, though they, or affiliated extremist groups, are suspected in all the strikes.
Late Monday, twin blasts and a resulting fire ripped through the Moon Market, a center in the eastern city of Lahore that is popular with women and sells clothing, shoes and cosmetics. Lahore police chief Pervaiz Lathore said Tuesday the death toll in the blasts reached 49, with more than 100 people wounded.
Authorities initially said both bombs at the market were believed to be remote-controlled, but they later said a suicide bomber was suspected to have detonated at least one of them.
Earlier Monday, a suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a courthouse in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Lahore is Pakistan’s second-largest city. It has been hit several times by militants over the past year, including an attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and several strikes against security installations.
By attacking Lahore and Multan, militants are bringing their war to the heart of Pakistan. Both are cities in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and one far from the northwest regions where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have more easily proliferated.
Peshawar has been a more frequent target. The northwestern city lies on the main road into the lawless tribal belt. Of all the attacks since the start of October, the deadliest occurred in Peshawar, where at least 112 people were killed in a bombing at another market.
The rise in militant attacks comes amid growing political turbulence, especially regarding the future of President Asif Ali Zardari, a pro-U.S. leader hugely unpopular here.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court continued examining the legality of an amnesty protecting him and 8,000 other officials from graft prosecution. The amnesty expired last month, and judges must rule on whether to reopen corruption cases against them.
Although Zardari has immunity from prosecution as president, some experts say the court could now take up cases challenging his eligibility to run for office.