Teams of gunmen attacked three security sites Thursday in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore while a suicide bomber hit a northwestern town, killing a total of 31 people. The strikes were part of an escalating a wave of terror aimed at scuttling a planned offensive into the militant heartland on the Afghan border.
The assaults paralysed one of the nation's most vibrant cities and showed that the militants are highly organised and able to carry out sophisticated, coordinated strikes against heavily fortified facilities; despite stepped up security across the country.
President Asif Ali Zardari said the bloodshed that has engulfed the nation over the past 11 days would not deter the government from its mission to eliminate the violent extremists, according to a statement on the state-run news agency.
"The enemy has started a guerrilla war,'' Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. "The whole nation should be united against these handful of terrorists, and, God willing, we will defeat them.''
The violence in Lahore began just after 9 a.m. when a group of gunmen attacked a building housing the Federal Investigation Agency, a law enforcement branch that deals with matters ranging from immigration to terrorism.
"We are under attack,'' said Mohammad Riaz, an FIA employee reached inside the building via phone by The Associated Press during the assault. "I can see two people hit, but I do not know who they are.''
The attack lasted about 90 minutes and ended with the death of two attackers, four government employees and a bystander, a senior government official, Sajjad Bhuttas said. Senior police official, Chaudhry Shafiq, said one of the dead wore a jacket bearing explosives.
Soon after that assault began, a second band of gunman raided a police training school in Manawan on the outskirts of the city in a brief attack that killed six police officers and four militants, Lahore police chief, Pervez Rathore, said. One of the gunmen was killed by police at the compound and the other three blew themselves up.
The facility was hit earlier this year in an attack that sparked an eight-hour standoff with the army that left 12 people dead.
A third team of at least eight gunmen scaled the back wall of an elite police commando training centre not far from the airport and attacked the facility, Mr. Rathore said. Senior police official, Malik Iqbal, said at least one police constable was killed there.
Television footage showed helicopters hover over one of the police facilities and paramilitary forces with rifles and bulletproof vests taking cover behind trees outside a wall surrounding the compound. Rana Sanaullah, provincial law minister of Punjab province, said police were trying to take some of the attackers alive so they could get information from them about their militant networks.
The wave of violence paralysed the city. All government offices were ordered shut, the roads were nearly empty, major markets did not open, and the stores that had been open pulled down their shutters.
Car bomb kills eight in Saddar
In the Taliban-riddled northwest, meanwhile, a suicide car bomb exploded next to a police station in the Saddar area of Kohat, collapsing half the building and killing eight people, including police and civilians, police official, Afzal Khan, said.
"We fear that some policemen are trapped under the rubble,'' he said.
The U.S. has encouraged Pakistan to take strong action against insurgents who are using its soil as a base for attacks in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are bogged down in an increasingly difficult war. It has carried out a slew of its own missile strikes in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt over the past year, killing several top militants, including Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud.
Missile strike kills four
One suspected U.S. missile strike killed four people overnight Thursday when it hit a compound in an area in North Waziristan tribal region where members of the militant network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani are believed to operate, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan formally protests the missile strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but many analysts believe it has a secret deal with the the U.S. allowing them.
Wave of attacks since Oct. 5
The militants have claimed credit for a wave of attacks that began with an Oct. 5 strike on the U.N. food agency in Islamabad and included a siege of the army's headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi that left 23 people dead.
The Taliban have warned Pakistan to stop pursuing them in military operations.
The Pakistani army has given no time frame for its expected offensive in South Waziristan tribal region, but has reportedly already sent two divisions totaling 28,000 men and blockaded the area.
Fearing the looming offensive, about 200,000 people have fled South Waziristan since August, moving in with relatives or renting homes in the Tank and Dera Ismail Khan areas, a local government official said.
Nirupama Subramanian reports from Islamabad:
The city of Lahore came under multiple attacks on Thursday morning, with militants targeting two police training schools and the immigration office.
The strike began at 9.45 a.m., when militants attacked the office of the Federal Immigration Authority (FIA) at Temple Road, in the crowded centre of Lahore.
The police said the situation had been brought under control at the FIA building a little after 11 a.m. At least seven people were killed in the exchange of fire at the building, and television footage showed policemen detaining one suspect.
A search of the building also yielded a large quantity of explosives that the attackers were apparently carrying.
At about the same time as this attack, militants stormed a police training school at Manawan on the outskirts of Lahore close to the Wagah border. This is the second time this school has come under attack this year. Militant struck at the school in March this year, taking hostages and battling security forces, until they were overpowered.
Simultaneously, armed militants also took over the Bedian Elite Police training school, located six km. beyond Lahore International Airport.
Gun battles were in progress between security forces and the militants at both schools. It is not clear if the militants have taken hostages, or if there are casualties, and if so how many.
The Rangers, a paramilitary force, have been deployed across Lahore for security.