LAHORE, Pakistan — Islamist militants launched coordinated assaults on three police compounds in Pakistan’s second largest city Thursday, the latest in a wave of attacks by insurgents bringing the war to the country’s heartland ahead of an expected offensive against their Afghan border sanctuary.
The dramatic escalation in violence appears to be an attempt by the Taliban- and al-Qaida-led insurgency to seize the initiative from the army and deliver a warning to the U.S.-backed civilian government: Attack us in South Waziristan and we will fight back in your cities.
It also discredits Pakistani claims that the Taliban were on the ropes after this year’s military campaign in the Swat Valley and the killing of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a U.S. airstrike in August.
The United States wants Pakistan’s army to launch the operation in South Waziristan to root out militants who use the remote mountainous region as a base for attacks in Afghanistan, where the American war effort is faltering amid spiraling violence eight years after the invasion.
Thursday’s assaults in Lahore added to a sense of crisis in this nuclear-armed country, now shaken by five major attacks by the Islamic extremists in the last 10 days that have killed more than 150 people — including a 22-hour siege of army headquarters over the weekend.
At least 19 people were killed in the Lahore attacks, most of them security officers, along with nine heavily armed attackers.
Gunmen in all three attacks carried dried fruit and apparently were preparing to dig in for a long siege, said Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister.
“We are here to lay down our lives for Islam. Jihad will continue,” two attackers shouted before blowing themselves up, according to one police officer. Most of the militants detonated suicide belts after they were injured or cornered to avoid capture, witnesses said.
One of the targets in Lahore was a training center for an elite police unit tasked with fighting militants. Many of the trainers there had received instruction from U.S. law enforcement officials under a little-publicized State Department program, officials said.