Militants behind a recent wave of suicide and bomb attacks on Pakistani security forces appear to have changed tactics this weekend: Aid workers and/or foreigners could be the new targets.
On 15 March a Turkish aid worker involved in earthquake relief efforts was killed in a bomb blast at an Italian restaurant frequented by foreigners in Islamabad, in what has been described as the first targeted attack on foreigners in the country since 2002.
“This is bad,” one aid worker who preferred anonymity told IRIN. “But I’m afraid it could get worse.”
At least 12 other foreigners were injured in the attack at the popular eatery, including several staff members of the US embassy.
Security advisories have been issued by several foreign embassies, while international organisations, including the UN, have called on their staff to be extra vigilant.
The attack comes less than a week after two suicide bombings in the eastern city of Lahore. These and other attacks have ended the sense of relief that followed an unexpectedly calm general election in Pakistan on 18 February. Since then a series of attacks have shaken the country, with over 126 killed in at least seven major bombings.
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But there has also been a change in the pattern of the bombings, with larger urban areas now being targeted, apparently in an effort to inflict maximum physical and psychological damage.
Police and other investigation agencies say they have little idea who is behind the attacks. There are suspicions that ongoing hostility between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the political parties elected to power could be a factor.
“We are investigating and we will find the culprits,” Brig Javed Cheema, spokesman for Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, told IRIN.
In Lahore, where three of the most recent attacks took place, most private schools closed down in the days following the bombings.
Messages sent over mobile phones warning parents of possible suicide attacks on schools have helped fuel the panic.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|The gory aftermath of the 11 March bomb blast on Lahore's famous Mall Road|
“The warnings state senior intelligence officials are aware of a plan to target schools. We have decided not to send our two sons to their school for several days,” said Umair Azeem, 38, a father-of-two.
At least three schools near the site of the massive bomb blast on 11 March which destroyed an eight-storey building in Lahore were directly affected by the explosion: Many pupils at St. Anthony’s School for Boys, Sacred Heart Cathedral and the Cathedral School suffered injuries as a result of the blast. These three schools have now been closed until 25 March.
Another blast, which killed five, including a woman and three children, took place almost simultaneously in the quiet Model Town residential area of Lahore.
“My children, aged six and eight years, saw the image of the bandaged, bleeding and very scared children on TV. They are now afraid of stepping out of our house,” said Javeria Hassan, 30, a schoolteacher.
Private school officials, at a meeting in Lahore on 13 February with Punjab education officials, have been asked to keep their main gates barricaded and stagger closing timings to avoid a rush of vehicles at the entrances.
The situation, unprecedented in the provincial capital, indicates the unease prevailing everywhere. Since the start of this year, violence linked to Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents has left over 600 dead and posed a significant challenge to the new government.