LAHORE -- Pakistanis Tuesday (February 14) mourned the victims of a Taliban-claimed suicide bombing in Lahore, as the death toll rose to 15 and the city's residents railed at the government for failing to protect them.
Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif declared a day of mourning after Monday's (February 13) blast on Mall Road, one of the city's main arteries, at rush hour during a protest.
At least 15 people were killed, emergency official Ahmad Raza told AFP, including six police officers, while up to 87 were injured.
The toll could have been much higher, he said, but for two vehicles -- a TV news van and a minivan belonging to the protesters -- which absorbed much of the impact of the blast.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction Jamatul Ahrar claimed responsibility for the assault, which came three days after it announced it would carry out a series of attacks on government installations across the country.
A spokesman for the group warned in a statement that Monday's bombing was "just the start".
Bloodied and seeking answers
Lahore residents vented their fury at the militants and the government in the wake of the blast.
"I saw my friend, soaked in blood, and many other wounded people and scattered bodies lying there," said Akbar Ali, a Lahore resident in his 30s who was injured in the attack and receiving treatment at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
"My friend is dead. I am alive," he told Pakistan Forward. "Militants are not Muslim. How could any Muslim wreak such havoc?"
Fazal Gul, another Lahore resident, after the blast was searching local hospitals for his friend who was one of the protestors.
"I went to all the hospitals but could not find him," he told Pakistan Forward, crying in despair, fearing the worst.
Nadeem Akhter called on the government to do more to bring the situation under control. "Our children and people are being killed in these attacks," he told AFP.
Bomber targets police, protestors
The blast occurred around 6:15pm, when about 400 people -- mainly chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers -- protesting provincial government plans to further regulate the medical sector, reached the Punjab Provincial Assembly building.
The attack "seems to be a suicide blast", senior police official Amin Wains told AFP, adding it had apparently targeted police trying to regulate the protest.
Punjab Inspector General of Police Mushtaq Ahmad Sukhera confirmed that six police officials, including three senior officials, were among the dead.
Chief Traffic Officer Syed Ahmed Mobin, Senior Superintendent of Police Operations Zahid Nawaz Gondal and Deputy Superintendent of Police Pervez Butt were killed, Sukhera told Pakistan Forward.
Mobin had been mediating with protesters to conclude the demonstration and clear the area, according to local news reports.
Investigators found body parts believed to belong to the suicide bomber, who was wearing an explosives vest. The forensic team collected fingerprints to confirm his identity.
In addition, Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) and police officials say they attempted to stop three suspected accomplices trying to reach Mobin just before the blast. The suspects dispersed into the crowd, but police chased down one and arrested him.
Terror threat raises alert
Three days before the blast, the TTP announced it would carry out a series of attacks on government installations, according to CTD officials.
"The city administration also had been receiving threats about [potential] deadly attacks since last month," CTD Chief Mohammad Iqbal told Pakistan Forward.
He said Monday's attack "illustrates growing frustration among terrorists since the Taliban and its affiliates are feeling the pressure of military and security agencies' offensives".
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) warned the Punjab government on at least two occasions in recent weeks about an impending terrorist threat in Lahore.
In a letter dated January 23, NACTA warned of explosives being transported in the city.
Chief Minister Sharif met with high-level security officials to assess the situation, and on January 24, Punjab police blocked all the major roads of Lahore for two hours to investigate the threat.
Furthermore, in a secret memo seen by Pakistan Forward sent February 7 to the Punjab Home Secretary, NACTA urged the relevant authorities to increase security on all vital installations, including important buildings, hospitals and schools.
"An unidentified terrorist group has planned a terrorist attack in Lahore," the memo said.
"Maximum preparations were made after the threat alert was received," Punjab Minister of Law and Parliamentary Affairs Rana Sanaullah Khan told Pakistan Forward in a phone interview.
Security forces launched full intelligence-based operations against members of banned outfits throughout the province, he said.
"We know the war on terror has spread across Pakistan, but we are trying to do our best to maintain security," he said.
"Police have been directed to keep an eye on the activities of suspects and banned religious organisations so that the evil designs of anti-social elements can be foiled," he said.
Nonetheless, Rana said, militants are determined to destabilise Punjab.
"Terrorists may now hit busy public places to create panic and instability," he said. "In order to prevent their nefarious designs, the government has [...] beefed up security at important installations."
While the terror threat remains, Rana expressed confidence that law and order is under control.
"The government firmly believes the terrorist network has been shattered in the province and the concerned agencies are vigilant to prevent terror networks from establishing themselves again," he said.
'An act of desperation'
The Lahore attack is "an act of desperation on the part of the TTP", said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political scientist and military analyst based in Lahore.
"Security forces have dislodged TTP militants [from the tribal areas] and now they are trying to shift the war theatre to major cities of the country to lessen the pressure they are confronting and to disrupt peace and stability after their strongholds were destroyed," he told Pakistan Forward.
Lahore suffered one of Pakistan's deadliest attacks during 2016 -- a Jamaat-ul-Ahrar suicide bomb in a park last Easter that killed more than 70 including many children. But such incidents have been rare in the city in recent years.
"Terrorism isn't a novelty for us," Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement. "Our story has been one of constant struggle against its grasp, and a fight for the soul of Pakistan."
"We will not stop until we can call ourselves a free and secure people; that is a promise," he said.
Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Bajwa condemned the attack and instructed the local army commander and intelligence agencies to provide all necessary assistance to the civil administration and to apprehend those responsible for the "heinous act".