QUETTA, Pakistan,(Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed 15 people, including a judge, in an attack on a courtroom in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta on Saturday, the latest in a series of suicide blasts that have sent shockwaves round the country.
Intelligence officials have linked other attacks in recent weeks to groups operating from tribal areas, regarded as hotbeds of support for the Taliban and militants linked to al Qaeda.
The bomb exploded while a lower court was in session and a senior judge and six lawyers were among those killed, police in the capital of Baluchistan province said.
“According to our reports a man entered the room and blew himself up. A head has been found,” Baluchistan province Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yousuf. “It could be a continuation of what is happening in other parts of the country.”
At least 25 people were injured and police chief Rahu Khan Brohi told Reuters six of them were in a critical condition.
An outbreak of suicide attacks started following an army air strike on a militant base in South Waziristan tribal region in mid-January.
Including the death toll from Quetta, nearly 45 people have been killed in bomb attacks since then, as militants have sought to destabilise President Pervez Musharraf’s government and weaken his resolve to confront the Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies.
Police arrested three members of a suicide bomb gang after a gunfight in the southern city of Karachi on Friday. And on Thursday in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next door to Islamabad, police captured two members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim sectarian militant group linked to al Qaeda.
Road blocks had been set up in Islamabad, and police were stopping and questioning drivers of small cars, taxis and trucks, and foreign embassies have told their staff to limit their travel in the capital.
Officials were unsure whether Saturday’s blast at a lower court in Quetta was carried by the Taliban or by ethnic Baluch militants fighting for greater autonomy. “Initially we suspect nationalist extremists, as well as Afghan Taliban could be behind the attack,” Razak Bugti, a spokesman for the Baluchistan government, said.
Television footage from the wrecked courthouse showed people and police walking through pools of blood, collecting belongings. Body parts and torn clothes could be seen all around.
Pakistan has been under mounting pressure from the United States and Afghanistan to tackle Taliban sanctuaries on its territory.
Taliban leaders are widely believed to be operating from in and around Quetta, the capital of the restive province of Baluchistan, though Pakistan consistently denies their presence.
Baluchistan is also beset with unrest due to ethnic Baluch militants, who are fighting for greater autonomy.