LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistani investigators were trying on Friday to identify a suspected Islamist militant suicide bomber who attacked police in the eastern city of Lahore the previous day killing 19 people.
The bomber walked up to police outside the city’s High Court and set off explosives. Police said on Thursday 22 people had been killed but city police chief Malik Mohammad Iqbal said the toll had been revised down to 16 policemen and three passers-by.
The attack was the latest in a wave of violence that has killed hundreds of people in recent months, including opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack on December 27.
The Thursday blast has compounded fears of insecurity weeks before February 18 elections that could weaken President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power. The elections are meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
“We have found the head and legs of the bomber but they are in very bad shape because he used very high explosives,” said Lahore police chief Iqbal.
“We are trying to establish his identity. We have sent his limbs for DNA tests.”
The attack was the first suicide blast in Lahore for more than two years and has added to fears that militants are expanding their campaign out of the northwest, where they have been battling troops in areas along the Afghan border.
Lahore is Pakistan’s political nerve centre and the capital of its richest and most populous province.
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A security official said the bomber was presumed to be a member of a militant group but authorities were not jumping to conclusions about which group he might have belonged to.
“The police department has asked three intelligence agencies to help them out in identifying the terrorist and his outfit,” said the security official, who declined to be identified.
The government blamed al Qaeda-linked militants intent on destabilizing the country for the recent wave of attacks, including Bhutto’s assassination.
“It’s too early to say who was involved but it’s certainly part of the same wave of suicide bombings,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.
Pakistani main stock market index was marginally lower in early trade as caution prevailed after the blast, dealers said.
Next month’s elections are for a lower house of parliament from which a new prime minister and government will be drawn and assemblies in Pakistan’s four provinces.
They were meant to take place on January 8 but were put off after Bhutto’s killing.
Musharraf told Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper he would resign if the government that emerges from the elections sought to impeach him.
Some analysts and politicians fear Musharraf might seize the opportunity to put off the elections again, citing rising violence, with the party that backs him facing losses in the vote, especially after Bhutto’s murder.
Campaigning has not resumed since Bhutto was assassinated and some political leaders are lying low because of security worries.
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.