LAHORE: Another deadly explosion wrecked the capital of Punjab on Thursday, less than a week after a suicide bomber mowed down 16 people – including two senior police officials – outside the Punjab Assembly. The blast tore through a shopping centre in the upscale Defence neighbourhood of Lahore, killing eight people and leaving 39 others injured.
Initially, there was confusion about the nature of the explosion at Z-Block of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), which is replete with upscale boutiques and cafés, but more than eight hours later the police concluded it was an accidental blast caused by gas cylinders.
The blast ripped through Alferno Café’, situated in the basement of the building, at 11.17 am. The café was scheduled to be inaugurated a few days later. The owner, Moazzam Paracha, and over 20 workers were present in the café when the explosion went off.
One worker, Adnan, told the police in his statement that a few days ago the owner had brought five gas cylinders, each weighing 45kgs, four of which were placed in the basement. On Friday night, the workers had complained of foul odor in the basement, suggesting possible leakage, he added. “My brother, Asif, lit a match-stick to smoke a cigarette which could have possibly triggered the explosion.” Asif also died in the explosion.
“It was a deafening explosion,” said police official Haider Awan, who was checking security measures at a bank adjacent to Alferno Café, along with ASI Haroon Javed and a constable. “Initially, I couldn’t understand what had happened,” he recalled. “When I regained senses I saw my colleagues badly injured, bleeding profusely,” he added.
“My God, my God, I saw so many bodies,” said Imtiaz Ali, a barber in a Toni & Guy hair salon opposite the blast site. “When I came out I just saw smoke and dust… Bikes upturned. Cars destroyed. My own colleague’s car windows blown out. My clients’ cars blown out. I was close to fainting.”
Police official Awan said the blast was followed by chaos as people started running around while injured were crying for help. “I saw three bodies lying at 100 meters away from the blast site,” he said, adding that he immediately called rescue services.
Muhamamd Ibrahim, an official of a philanthropist organisation, was the first to respond. “When I reached the site, I saw three bodies – charred and mutilated – in the parking lot,” he told The Express Tribune.
Within an hour, police and paramilitary Rangers threw a security cordon around the area as rescuers ferried the casualties to nearby hospitals and investigators from the Bomb Disposal Squad, Counter-Terrorism Department, Punjab Forensic Science Agency and sensitive agencies scoured through the debris to look for vital forensic evidence.
The dead were identified as Moazzam Paracha, CEO of Intel Airlink, Asif, 25, Javed, 40, Imran, 40, Shabir, 25, Habib and Richard Munir. Four of the injured were said to be in a critical condition.
It took them more than eight hours to determine the nature of the blast. Around 3.30pm, the CTD chief told the media on the basis of preliminary investigation that the blast was apparently caused by explosives. He wouldn’t say it was a timed device or a remotely triggered bomb.
However, hours later the CTD concluded in its investigation report that it was a cylinder blast. “Eyewitness accounts and crime scene examination confirmed it was an accidental gas explosion,” one official told The Express Tribune.
District Emergency Officer Ahmad Raza said they didn’t find any mark of ball bearings or shrapnel on the bodies of those killed or injured, lending credence to reports that it wasn’t a bomb explosion. The Defence A police, in the jurisdiction of which the building falls, also called it an ‘accident’ based on the statement of Adnan.
However, Home Minister Rana Sanaullah said that they were investigating and reports of the Forensic Science Agency would confirm the nature of blast. “The impact of the blast doesn’t confirm that it was a cylinder blast,” he said, adding that investigators were removing the rubble.
The sound impact of the explosion smashed the windows of almost all the buildings within a radius of 200 metres, while the bang was heard as far as two kilometres. Just over an hour later rumours of a second blast in another affluent area nearby sent ambulances racing to the scene, though authorities later said the reports were false.
Panic also spread on social media as citizens exchanged messages purporting to be warnings from intelligence agencies, including one that falsely stated a general curfew had been ordered in Lahore with shoot-on-sight orders.
Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif convened a high-level security huddle after the explosion. The meeting reviewed the security situation in the aftermath of the deadly blast, with the chief minister saying that every possible step should be taken to safeguard the life and property of the citizens.
He directed investigators to probe into the blast from all angles and submit a report at the earliest. He also called for speeding up combing operations across the province to eliminate anti-social elements. Attendees included provincial ministers Rana Sanaullah, Lt Col (retd) Sardar Muhammad Ayub, Jehangir Khanzada, and top police and administration officials.