At least 59 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a Pakistani police training academy in the southwestern city of Quetta and took hostages, government officials said on Tuesday.
More than 200 police trainees were stationed at the facility when the attack occurred late on Monday, officials said. Some cadets were taken hostage during the attack, which lasted five hours. Most of the dead were police cadets.
“Militants came directly into our barrack. They just barged in and started firing point blank. We started screaming and running around in the barrack,” one cadet who survived told local media.
Mir Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister of Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, said the gunmen attacked a dormitory inside the training facility while cadets rested and slept.
“Two attackers blew up themselves while a third one was shot in the head by security men,” Bugti said. Earlier officials said there were five to six gunmen.
A Reuters photographer at the scene said authorities carried out the body of a teenaged boy who they said was one of the attackers and had been shot dead by security forces.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but one of the top military commanders in Baluchistan, General Sher Afgun, told media that calls intercepted between the attackers and their handlers suggested they were from the sectarian Sunni militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
“We came to know from the communication intercepts that there were three militants who were getting instructions from Afghanistan,” Afgun told media, adding that the Al Alami cell of LeJ was behind the attack.
LeJ, whose roots are in the heartland Punjab province, has a history of carrying out sectarian attacks in Baluchistan, particularly against the minority Hazara Shias. Pakistan has previously accused LeJ of colluding with al Qaeda.
Authorities launched a crackdown against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi last year, particularly in Punjab province. In a major blow to the organization, Malik Ishaq, the group’s leader, was killed in July 2015 alongside 13 other members of the central leadership in what police say was a failed escape attempt.
A home ministry official said it was unclear what motive the group would have in attacking the police academy.
“Two, three days ago we had intelligence reports of a possible attack in Quetta city, that is why security was beefed up in Quetta, but they struck at police training college,” Sanaullah Zehri, chief minister of Baluchistan, told the local Geo TV channel.
Monday night’s assault was the deadliest in Pakistan since a suicide bomber killed 70 people in an attack on mourners gathered at a hospital in Quetta in August.
The bomber struck as a crowd of mostly lawyers and journalists crammed into the emergency ward of the hospital to accompany the body of a prominent lawyer who had been shot and killed in the city earlier in the day.
Monday night’s attack also appeared well coordinated, with senior law enforcement agencies saying that assailants had fired at the police training center from five different points.
Later, the attackers entered the center’s hostel where around 200 to 250 police recruits were resting, security officials said. At least three explosions were reported at the scene by local media.
Quetta has long been regarded as a base for the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership has regularly held meetings there.
The Afghan Taliban’s new leader Haibatullah Akhundzada openly taught and preached at a mosque outside Quetta for 15 years, until May this year. Akhundzada’s predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike while traveling to Quetta from the Pakistan-Iran border.
Baluchistan province is no stranger to violence, with separatist fighters launching regular attacks on security forces for nearly a decade and the military striking back.
Militants, particularly sectarian groups, have also launched a campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations of minority Shias.
(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI and Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Asad Hashim in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Kay Johnson and Mehreen Zahra-Malik, Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Catherine Evans, Toni Reinhold and Michael Perry)