By Zarar Khan And Rebecca Santana Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — Gunmen stormed Pakistan’s main court complex in Islamabad on Monday, cutting down fleeing lawyers before blowing themselves up in a rampage that killed 11 people. It was the worst terror attack in years in the capital, which has largely been spared the violence raging in many parts of the country.
The bloodshed undermined the government’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the main militant group, the Pakistani Taliban, just days after the organization announced a one-month cease-fire for the talks.
The Pakistani Taliban denied responsibility for the attack. But the violence underscored the difficulty of negotiations when numerous militant groups are operating in Pakistan. And it raised questions of whether the Taliban can control some of their factions that may oppose talks.
The attack stunned the capital, a normally quiet city of wide, tree-lined boulevards that is home to diplomats, generals, aid workers and government officials. It was the deadliest attack in Islamabad since a 2008 truck bombing at the Marriott Hotel killed 54 people.
In an assault that lasted roughly 20 minutes, gunmen swarmed through the narrow alleys between the complex’s buildings, hurling grenades and firing automatic weapons wildly, witnesses said. Gunmen broke through a door to one judge’s chambers and shot him to death, while other victims were mowed down in the cafeteria.
One lawyer, Momin Ali, described it as a scene from hell, with attorneys and judges fleeing for their lives amid explosions and gunfire.
“My colleague was shot, and there was no one to help him. When I reached him, he was bleeding and crying for help,” he said.
In the confusion afterward, it was unclear how many attackers were involved and whether any escaped.
At least two were suicide bombers who rushed in, threw hand grenades and started shooting, then detonated the explosives on their bodies, said Islamabad Police Chief Sikander Hayat. One blew himself up outside the office of the lawyers’ union president, the other outside a judge’s office, he said.
Lawyer Murad Ali said he saw several attackers brandishing automatic weapons head toward a courtroom and shoot a female lawyer. Ali’s hands were splattered with blood from helping remove four of the dead.
Another lawyer, Sardar Gul Nawaz, said the attackers had short beards and wore shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani outfit of baggy pants and a long tunic.
Police Inspector Khalid Mahmood Awan said the two suicide bombers were the only attackers. Awan, chief of the Margala police station near the court complex, said that the two carried out their shooting rampage, then, after an exchange of fire with police, blew themselves up.
Police searched the compound afterward and found no other gunmen. But others put the number higher.
One intelligence official, after examining the scene, said the attackers operated in three groups of four each. When the job was done, the survivors escaped in three waiting vehicles, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Police official Jamil Hashmi put the number of attackers at six to eight, and numerous witnesses spoke of seeing more than two.
The dead included one judge, three lawyers and a policeman, said Dr. Ayesha Essani, spokeswoman for the hospital where the dead and wounded were taken. She said 29 people were wounded.
A little-known group identifying itself as Ahrar-ul-Hind claimed responsibility in a telephone call to an Associated Press reporter. A spokesman for the group, Assad Mansour, said it was not part of the Pakistani Taliban, nor bound by their cease-fire. There was no way to independently verify their claim.
After the assault, body parts and blood were mingled with shattered glass on the ground in the compound, which is a warren of judges’ chambers, lawyers’ offices and restaurants and businesses catering to the legal community.
On any given day, the walkways around the offices are bustling with clerks and clients, prisoners being led around in chains and families of suspects waiting for their loved ones to appear in court.
Islamabad has in recent years been spared the bombings and shootings prevalent in other parts of Pakistan, such as Peshawar, near the tribal areas, or the port city of Karachi.
The attack is likely to severely test the government’s desire to pursue peace talks. The process has proceeded in fits and starts but seemed to get a boost on Saturday, when the Pakistani Taliban announced a one-month cease-fire after the military pounded their hideouts with airstrikes.
A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban, as the Pakistani Taliban is formally called, said in a telephone call to an AP reporter that the group was not involved in Monday’s assault and restated his group’s commitment to the cease-fire.
Interior Ministry Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, speaking in Parliament after the attack, said it wasn’t enough for the militants to disassociate themselves from the attack. They must condemn it as well, he said, while vowing to bring the culprits to justice.
Analysts said that while some in the Pakistani Taliban may want to negotiate a peace deal, other factions or militant groups may not.
Mansur Mahsud of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre, which studies the tribal areas where these militant groups are based, said the government will probably respond with more airstrikes.
“The government has made it very clear that they will tolerate no attacks and if the attacks are carried out, then they will retaliate in the same manner,” he said.