At least 59 police trainees were killed in an overnight raid by militants on a police academy in southwest Pakistan, authorities said early on Tuesday after a military counter-operation was finished.
Balochistan’s top health official, Noor Haq Baloch, said at least 117 people were wounded — mostly police trainees and some paramilitary troops. Haq said many of the trainees died when the gunmen detonated explosive vests.
But the home minister of the restive Balochistan province, Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti, put the death toll at 20. “...this figure isn’t final -- we’ll confirm it in the morning,” he told reporters at the site of the attack.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Major General Sher Afghan, chief of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, told reporters that the attackers appeared to be in contact with handlers in Afghanistan. He said the attackers belonged to the banned Lashker-e-Jhangvi group, an Islamic militant group affiliated with al Qaeda.
Pakistani troops had earlier launched a major operation, which lasted more than four hours, against the militants who stormed the Balochistan Police College, located 20km east of Quetta city centre, around 11:30 pm (1830 GMT).
According to a military statement, “five to six” militants were involved in the assault.
Home minister Bugti tweeted “2 terrorist killed” and “200 plus rescued Alhamdo lillha (by God’s grace)”.
A Reuters photographer at the scene said authorities carried out the body of a teenaged-boy who they said was one of the attackers and had been shot dead by security forces.
Bugti said the building normally housed around 700 trainees, but “recently there was a batch which graduated so I can’t say how many there are now”.
Government spokesperson Anwarul Haq said about 250 trainees were in the centre at the time of the attack.
The area was plunged into darkness when the operation was launched while security personnel created a cordon and ambulances zoomed in and out, taking the injured to hospitals. Military helicopters, meanwhile, circled overhead.
A man who identified himself as a police cadet told reporters: “I saw three men in camouflage whose faces were hidden --- carrying Kalashnikovs. They started firing and entered the dormitory but I managed to escape over a wall.”
Another trainee told Geo television: “They were rushing toward our building firing shots. So we rushed for safety toward the roof and jumped down in the back to save our lives.”
Baloch separatists demanding greater autonomy of the mineral rich, but desperately poor region have been waging an on-off insurgency for decades, and the province is also riven by sectarian strife and Islamist violence.
The attack came a day after separatist gunmen for the Baloch Liberation Army on a motorcycle shot dead two coast guards and a civilian and wounded a shopkeeper in a remote southwest coastal town in the same province.
In August, a suicide bombing at a Quetta hospital claimed by the Islamic State group and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban killed 73 people, including many of the city’s lawyer community who had gone there to mourn the fatal shooting of a colleague.
Balochistan is also a key region for China’s ambitious $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project linking its western province of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan.
Security problems have mired CPEC in the past with numerous separatist attacks, but China has said it is confident the Pakistani military is in control.
The army has repeatedly been accused by international rights groups of abuses in Balochistan.