Two suicide bombers on Sunday killed Punjab’s top security czar, who had campaigned against militants, and at least 18 others, after detonating a bomb at a meeting he was attending at his political office in Shadi Khan village, around 30 kilometres away from Attock city.
It was the first major terrorist attack after a relatively long lull in militant violence since the government put in place a new national counter-terrorism plan following the methodical killing of 140-plus pupils and staff at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December, last year.
“Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada has embraced martyrdom,” said chief rescue official Muhammad Ashfaq. He was trapped with several others under the rubble after the blast brought down the roof of the building.
The provincial police chief said the blast ripped the peripheral wall that caused the roof to collapse as Khanzada met around 20 people who came to offer condolences on the death of his cousin. Several people were still missing and presumed to be under the rubble.
“There were two suicide bombers, one stood outside the boundary wall and the second went inside and stood in front of the minister,” IGP Mushtaq Sukhera told reporters. “The blast by the bomber standing outside ripped the wall which caused the roof to fall flat on the minister and people gathered there,” he added.
IGP Sukhera said police were investigating whether the bomber inside the building detonated a bomb. Witnesses, however, said the bomber entered the building requesting for water and then the blast went off. “The torso of the bomber was blown into pieces,” one witness said.
Officials said 19 people were killed and 25 others wounded in the attack, while IGP Sukhera said he could not rule out the involvement of banned sectarian militant groups against whom the government had launched a crackdown.
Family confirmed Khanzada had received threats from outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and affiliated terrorist organisations one year ago. “Subsequently, he had restricted his political activities,” a family member said. “It was his first political engagement at his hometown after Eidul Fitr.”
Officials said there were nearly 40 people in the compound when the bombing took place, causing the entire roof slab to fall in one piece – adding to the death toll while narrow streets and alleyways in the village complicated rescue efforts.
A specially-trained team of army rescuers with modern equipment was working with civilian rescuers to lift and cut sections of the fallen roof to reach the victims. The rescue operation was completed after hours of efforts by Rescue 1122 and army teams.
Soon after the attack, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar ordered his ministry’s helicopters to the site to airlift the victims to hospitals in the twin cities of Rawalpindi-Islamabad where a state of emergency was declared.
Former secretary security Fata Brigadier (retd) Mahmood Shah posted on his official Facebook wall: “Col Shuja Khanzada was a family friend. Told him recently that security in his village was not adequate but he thought otherwise…”
A police spokeswoman said two police s, including DSP Hazro Shaukat Shah, were also among the dead in the attack.
A Taliban-affiliated militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was in retaliation for military operations against them. “Such types of attacks will continue in the future,” group member Saluddin Ayubi told Reuters. It was unclear if Lashkar-e-Islam, based mainly in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, had actually carried out the attack.
Khanzada had been active in crackdowns on sectarian militants and Taliban insurgents in Punjab. Last month the LeJ head honcho, Malik Ishaq, was killed in a shootout with police, along with 13 other militants, including some of his senior commanders, in Muzaffargarh district of Punjab.
The funeral of Khanzada and DSP Shah was held at 8:45pm at Police Lines in Attock which was attended by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and a number of lawmakers. He was later laid to rest at his ancestral graveyard in Shadi Khan village. The Punjab government also announced a three-day mourning period in the province starting Monday.
The Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) government also announced one-day mourning period across the state. The flags of Pakistan and AJK will fly at half-mast atop government and private buildings across the state. Prime Minister Chaudhry Abdul Majeed made the announcement to honour Punjab Home Minister Col (retd) Shuja Khanzad and other martyrs of the Attock suicide attack.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2015.