LAHORE - Ten people died and over 30 others were wounded when a mysterious blast ripped through a plaza in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority, shortly before Thursday noon.

There was a lot of uncertainty about the nature of the explosion that came around 11:12am at the busy Z-Block commercial market in the posh neighbourhood, causing terror and panic in the area.

Initially, it was said to be caused by an electric generator and then termed a bomb detonation. Later at night the police insisted the havoc was actually caused by leakage of gas from cylinders placed at the site where some construction work was in progress.

No terrorist outfit claimed the responsibility for the explosion, lending credence to suggestions that it could be an accident rather than the work of terrorists.

Apparently, the blast occurred close to the basement-stairs of the three-storey building, which came to the ground almost an hour later.

Eyewitness told The Nation that many families were dining at a nearby restaurant when the explosion shook the entire market, frequented by elite of the town. Several international food chains, saloons, banks, and cafes are located nearby.

Four people died on the spot, three succumbed to injuries on way to hospitals and another three expired during medical treatment, rescue workers said.

All the deceased were men, aged between 20 and 40, and nine of them were identified as Javed, Moazzam Paracha, Imran, Aslam, Shabbir, Habib, Asif, Richard Munir, and Tahir. One of the dead, Moazzam Paracha, is said to be the CEO of a multinational company.

A spokesman for the Edhi Foundation said that at least 28 injured including women and children were admitted to different hospitals. “Most of them received multiple injuries. They were hit by pieces of glass and brick,” Younis Bhatti said.

Over two dozen cars and bikes were seen badly damaged at the site. The explosion was so powerful that it shattered the windowpanes and glass-walls of several nearby malls and plazas.

Reporters were denied access to the crime scene by police as paramilitary troops cordoned off the area minutes after the blast. Several blood-soaked bodies were lying (at a reasonable distance from each other) in the parking lot as convoys of ambulances arrived at the site.

There was already a lot of fear and anxiety in the whole city when TV reports about a second blast in Gulberg put the things into a terrifying spin. The Gulberg boom, occurring in the middle of the rescue operations at DHA, later turned out to be caused by a tyre burst.

Security remains heightened in Punjab’s capital and massive search operations are going on since the terrorists struck a protest gathering on The Mall almost two weeks ago, on Feb 13, in the first terrorist hit in a series of attacks that has shaken the country.

Scene at the site

At the Z-Block site, pillars of smoke could be seen from a considerable distance. Eyewitnesses said the blast was so powerful that it jolted everything. Reportedly, some 20 to 25kg explosive material had detonated.

There was hue and cry in the affluent neighbourhood as traders shut their businesses. Sadly, instead of helping the victims, some youngsters were seen making videos of the incident by using their handsets.

The educational institutions were closed in the vicinity as frightened parents rushed to schools to pick their children.

A private security guard Muhammad Mansha was also among the injured. He was on duty outside an adjacent plaza when the blast took place.

Mansha, who was in stable condition at the Lahore General Hospital yesterday evening, said, “Some men were busy in construction work in the basement of the plaza when the explosion came. They were repairing the restaurant for the last couple of weeks. I fell unconscious after being hit by a brick.”

A number of people were in queues outside a nearby bank when the blast took place. “I was standing outside the bank. A large piece of glass fell on me. I don’t remember what happened next because I fell unconscious,” said one of injured, Adeel.

Contradictory statements

Initially, police said that an electric generator had caused the DHA blast. Almost an hour later, a CTD officer said some explosive material had been detonated.

A counter terror official described the incident as “an act of terrorism” stating that some explosive material was used in the blast. Investigators were also looking into the possibility if it was a “premature blast” that came during the preparation or transportation of a bomb, he added.

“It was a bomb blast with a huge sound impact that smashed the windows of almost all the buildings around,” Reuters quoted Punjab government spokesman Malik Mohammad Khan as saying.

He said the blast caused a huge crater and authorities were investigating the exact “nature and motives” of the blast.

The same news agency quoted police spokesman Nayab Haider as telling that the explosion was caused by a bomb that was detonated either remotely or by timer.

Even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is on a visit to Turkey, issued a condemnatory statement calling it an act of terror.

But later at night the police maintained they had no evidence suggesting that it was bomb explosion.

Lahore DIG operations Haider Ashraf late at night told The Nation that the police were “80 percent” sure the explosion was caused by leakage of gas cylinders or pipeline rupture, without explaining how he drew this percentage.

Even an FIR was registered with police on the statement of the brother of one of the dying labourers named Asif. The complainant said he was at the site to see his brother when one of the labourers tried to light his cigarette with a match stick, which ignited fire and led to the explosion.

A police officer earlier in the day told The Nation that material like ball-bearings and chemicals were not used in the blast. “We could not recover ball-bearing or other such material (from the crime scene) and it is premature to say if it was a bomb blast,” the officer said while requesting anonymity.

Fear-mongering

The country remains in grip of fear as it has been reeling from a series of terror strikes which left more than 100 people dead in the last two weeks.

Since the suicide bombing on The Mall on February 13, which claimed 15 lives, reports have been circulating on social networking sites suggesting that leading shopping malls face imminent terror threat in Lahore. Many people launched an SMS campaign on handsets following the attack on police officers, spreading fear and terror among the fellow citizens.

One such SMS message read: “(Lahore’s) Main Market [is at] high alert. Please, ask everyone to stay away from Jalal Sons. High alert, security level red, be implemented as 10 to 12 terrorists have entered Lahore cantonment area. Expected area of execution [of attack] is Mall of Lahore, surroundings [of] cantonment, Fortress, DHA markets.”

A senior police officer last week rejected such reports circulating on social media and through SMS service stating that there was no specific terror threat with regard to shopping malls in Lahore.

“The police are on high alert following the deadly terror attack [on The Mall]. But such reports are just rumours,” the officer said and asked the citizens to be vigilant and immediately contact the police in case they observe some suspicious activities around them.

Citing security reasons, several private schools last night announced closure of educational institutes in the city until Monday. But the DHA later at night said that no educational institute would be closed in the locality as appropriate security measures have already been taken.

Appeal for calm, restraint

As yesterday’s explosion triggered a new wave of panic, the government appealed calm to the citizens and urged media to observe restraint and responsibility while reporting on terrorism.

Minister of State for Information Marriyam Aurangzeb in a brief interaction with the media in Islamabad said that both the mainstream and social media should exercise caution and not become part of efforts to proliferate and embed fear and confusion among people as it fulfils the agenda of the terrorists.

Senior government official yesterday also vowed that the final cricket match of the Pakistan Super League scheduled for early next month in Lahore will take place as per schedule.