LAHORE, Pakistan – A suicide bomb attack killed at least 22 people, most of them policemen, in Pakistan on Thursday, deepening a sense of insecurity weeks before an election that could weaken President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power.
The suicide bomber walked up to policemen stationed outside the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore and blew himself up.
“Most of the victims are policemen. It was a suicide attack,” said senior city government official Mian Ejaz. He said 60 people had been wounded.
Pakistan has seen a wave of bomb attacks in recent months, many of them suicide attacks on members of the security forces, but there had been none in Lahore, capital of Punjab province.
City police chief Malik Mohammad Iqbal told Geo Television that all but one of the victims were policemen, who had gathered outside the court ahead of a protest rally by lawyers.
Police constable Jameel Ahmed said the attacker was a man aged about 25 who had arrived outside the court on a motorbike.
“He parked his bike and walked to the police and blew himself up,” Ahmed said.
Television pictures showed wounded policemen being hauled onto stretchers and taken away by ambulance. Police caps, boots and riot shields littered the road.
Hundreds of people have been killed in suicide blasts in recent months.
Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack as she left an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on December 27.
More than 20 bystanders were killed in that attack, which led to the postponement of a January 8 general election meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
The elections, for a lower house of parliament from which a new prime minister and government will be drawn, and assemblies in Pakistan’s four provinces, have been postponed to February 18.
But analysts and some politicians fear Musharraf will seize the opportunity to put off the elections again, citing violence, with the party that backs him facing losses in the vote, especially after Bhutto’s killing.
The government blamed al Qaeda-linked militants for the attack on Bhutto, and for the other attacks.
But many Pakistanis accuse the government of failing to provide her with proper security, and some even suspect her enemies in shadowy security agencies were involved.
“It’s not only that people feel that (the government) is not doing enough,” said government critic and human rights activist Asma Jahangir.
“There is also a feeling that the government machinery is maybe somewhere connected to all this. That makes it more fearful,” she said.
Mohammad Arshad, an 18-year-old clerk, working in a lawyer’s office across the road from the Lahore blast, said he saw blood and bits of flesh sticking to the broken windows of his building.
“The whole building shook and when I ran out I saw bodies lying all around. There was flesh and blood everywhere and people were crying for help,” Arshad said.
The pulse of Pakistani politics beats strongest in Lahore, a city that is home to many of the country’s elite and families of the army’s officer class.
Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous and richest province. It also has about half of its National Assembly seats.
Musharraf and caretaker Prime Minister Mohammadmian Soomro condemned what they called a terrorist attack and ordered authorities to hunt down those behind it.
The attack came as Pakistan braced for another wave of violence as minority Shi’ite Muslims begin an annual mourning period marred by sectarian attacks in recent years.