LAHORE - After over a year of relative calm, militants struck in the heart of the city before dawn on Thursday. They targeted under-training prison guards in a 10-minute commando-style operation, killing 9 of them and injuring 8 others.

Three to five militants – believed to be al-Qaeda inspired – stormed a double-storey hostel in the congested Rasool Park area of Samanabad at around 5:50am, and opened indiscriminate fire on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prison Department officials residing there.

Most of the policemen were about to get up while a few were taking shower when three masked men barged into their compound and opened heavy firing, terrorising the entire locality.

“Four policemen died on the spot while another five succumbed to injuries at the hospital,” Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Muhammad Aslam Tareen told reporters at the crime scene. He termed it a ‘coward act of terrorism’.

All the killed and wounded were officials of the KP prison department who were here for a training course at the National Academy for Prison, adjacent to the Camp Jail at Ferozepur Road. Their training was to conclude on July 28.

“Two masked men entered the hostel by scaling the wall, broke the door open and sprayed bullets with automatic guns on the sleeping policemen to maximum of them,” visibly frightened Nazar Khan, one of the injured told this reporter at the Services Hospital.

“I jumped down from the first floor to save my life as I saw three gunmen firing from three directions. They were wearing jackets and they continued firing for no more than 10 minutes,” Ejaz Khan, another under-training official said while standing outside the attacked hostel.

Several pairs of blood-soaked shoes were lying scattered right outside a room. The bullet-riddled bodies were lying next to each other on first and ground floors as heavy police contingents arrived at the crime scene. Intelligence sources believed that Qaeda-linked militants were involved in this brazen yet well-planned gun attack. “Al-Qaeda has planned killing personnel of the security forces and the armed forces in targeted operations for collaborating with US-led Nato troops,” a senior intelligence official told this scribe.

“We had intelligence reports about possible terror attacks on the security agencies by the al-Qaeda inspired militants. Troublingly, they (assailants) hit the soft target in the densely populated residential area,” the intelligence official said, fearing they could launch more attacks.

Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP) Muhammad Habibur Rehman has constituted a Joint Investigations Team (JIT) to probe into the terror strike.

“The recent terror attacks at the army camp in Gujrat, police picket near Babu Sabu Interchange and this one in Samanabad are identical because the modus operandi and the vehicles used in these acts of terrorism are similar,” the provincial police chief told reporters after visiting the crime scene.

There were no security arrangements at hostel the jail authorities had rented for the 32 policemen, who were residing there for the last one and a half month. “There was not a single security man in the area when the terrorists struck and the police arrived 45 minutes after the incident so the gunmen escaped without facing any resistance,” said Muhammad Iqbal, a local resident. Police blamed the Prison Department for security failure saying that the incident took place due to their negligence. “We came to know that policemen were residing here only after this incident. Neither the jail authorities had informed us nor did they provide their own security to the staff,” CCPO Aslam Tareen told reporters at the crime scene. “It happened because of the negligence of the jail officials,” he asserted.

Eyewitnesses said the attackers specifically targeted the policemen, which suggests that they had proper intelligence about their routine activities. “There were a few men walking in the narrow street when the gunmen were fleeing. A sweeper was also on work near the hostel but they (gunmen) did not open fire on anybody,” Ziaullah, an eyewitness and local resident, said.

Locals said it was heavy gunfire that lasted for 10 minutes or so. The gunshots awakened many of the nearby residents who came out of their residences in fear and terror.

Security experts say the brazen attack indicates how powerful network the terrorists have at their disposal as they can freely penetrate into congested localities, identify their target, attack it and flee without being intercepted.

Meanwhile, a high-level Joint Investigations Team (JIT) headed by CCPO Lahore Aslam Tareen has been constituted to probe into the incident. Lahore SSP (Investigations), SP (CIA), SP CTD, SP Special Branch, Model Town SP (Investigations), and two officers of Major-rank from the Military Intelligence (MI) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are members of the JIT.

“The attack on policemen in Lahore is a brazen act of barbarism and terrorism and we will not sit comfortably until and unless the terrorists are captured,” an official handout quoted IGP Punjab Muhammad Habibur Rehman as telling after visiting the crime scene in Rasool Park.

The IGP said that according to the initial investigations, at least 10 terrorists carried out the attack. The police chief said that three motorcycles and a Suzuki Cultus car was used in the attack while the terrorists were equipped with latest weapons including hand grenades, kalashnikov rifles and pistols.

The provincial police chief also visited the Services Hospital to inquire about the health the wounded policemen.

The condition of the injured namely Asad Jaffar, Nazar, Ayyaz, Shareef Ullah, Muhammad Rizwan, Haleem Ullah, and Ameer is stated to be out of danger.

Those died in the brutal attack were identified as Khuda-i-Noor, Shafqat Rizwan, Qamar-ul-Zaman, Sharif Uddin, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Fayyaz, Sardar Khan, Azmat Janan, and Asif. All the deceased and wounded are said to be 25 to 40 years-old

This is the third Taliban-style attack in the Punjab province during the last couple of months. On Monday, Taliban gunmen killed seven security personnel and a policeman at an army base in Gujrat district. The Punjab province has been mainly a peaceful over the past year.

Brutes back in Lahore!