Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif is facing pressure to do more to protect lawyers after a horrific suicide bombing on Monday (August 8) at a Quetta hospital killed 72 people, many among them lawyers.
An explosion tore through a crowd of some 200 lawyers who had gathered at the Civil Hospital to mourn the fatal shooting of a colleague.
Medical staff said up to 60 of those killed in Monday’s bombing at the government hospital were lawyers who were there following the assassination earlier that day of the president of the Baluchistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi.
Officials on Tuesday put the death toll at 72, with more than 100 injured.
Bomb disposal unit chief Abdul Razzaq said it was a suicide attack. “The bomber had strapped some eight kilograms (18 pounds) of explosives packed with ball bearings and shrapnel on his body,” he said.
Television footage showed scenes of chaos at the hospital, with panicked people fleeing through debris as smoke filled the corridors. Bodies lay strewn across a hospital courtyard shortly after the blast and pools of blood collected as emergency rescuers rushed to identify survivors.
Sharif and army chief General Raheel Sharif visited the wounded on Monday evening as world leaders condemned the attack.
“We remain resolute in joining with the people of Pakistan in confronting terrorism in Pakistan and across the region,” the White House said in a statement.
The State Department said the blast had targeted “two of the most important pillars of every democracy” – the judiciary and the media.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said it was “particularly appalling” that it targeted mourners at a hospital.
France’s president Francois Hollande denounced the “abominable act”, while the European Union said there was “no justification for such acts of terrorism”.
Both the Pakistani Taliban and the Daesh (Islamic State) group have asserted responsibility for the attack, though neither claim has been verified by Pakistani authorities.
The Daesh claim, if true, would make it the group’s deadliest attack so far in Pakistan, where it has struggled for influence.
Sharif on Tuesday met interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and national security advisor Lt-Gen (retd) Nasir Khan Janjua, according to a local report. It added that the prime minister urged a co-ordinated response by law-enforcement agencies as well as the regional and federal government.
Scores of lawyers held rallies in major cities including the capital Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta on Tuesday.
“How weak and pathetic are these people who target hospitals, where women and children, where patients, go to get treatment?” Ashtar Ausaf Ali, Pakistan’s attorney general, said on Tuesday at a protest outside the supreme court in Islamabad.
In the capital and Karachi, lawyers called for the authorities to protect civilians.
Supreme Court Bar President Ali Zafar called for the government to do more to protect lawyers.
“Lawyers are relatively more vocal against militancy and they are fighting cases against people accused of terrorism, so it would make sense that they are being targeted,” said Ali Malik, a Lahore-based lawyer.
“An attack on lawyers makes a mockery of the law-enforcement agencies, it undermines the promises of the state against terrorists and breeds fear among vulnerable citizens.”
The motive behind the attack was unclear, but several lawyers have been targeted during a recent spate of killings in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, which has a history of militant and separatist violence.
The latest victim, Bilal Anwar Kasi, was shot and killed while on his way to the city’s main court complex, senior police official Nadeem Shah said.
The subsequent suicide attack appeared to target his mourners, said Anwar ul Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the Baluchistan government.
“It seems it was a pre-planned attack,” he said.
Ali Zafar, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore, “We (lawyers) have been targeted because we always raise our voice for people’s rights and for democracy ... Lawyers will not just protest this attack but also prepare a long-term plan of action.”
The bombing in Quetta was initially claimed by Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban that is fighting to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), formed in 2014, also claimed responsibility for Pakistan’s deadliest blast so far this year – the Lahore Easter bombing, which killed 75.
The US State Department last week designated JuA a terrorist group, calling it “a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)”.
Later, however, Daesh said one of its fighters carried out the attack, in what would mark an escalation in the ability of the group, or its regional offshoots, to strike in Pakistan.
Attacks claimed by Daesh in Pakistan are rare, the most significant being a 2015 bus assault in Karachi that killed 47 people.
“A martyr from the Islamic State detonated his explosive belt at a gathering of justice ministry employees and Pakistani policemen in the city of Quetta,” Daesh’s Amaq news agency reported.
Some Pakistani analysts were sceptical.
“The ISIS claim seems very unconvincing,” said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
“The claim of responsibility by Jamaat-ur-Ahrar is more credible,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, head of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
He noted that Jamaat had sworn loyalty to Daesh’s Middle East leadership in 2014, but later switched back to the Taliban.
“Every time they have carried out an attack, they have taken responsibility independently (of Islamic State),” Rana said.
It remains unclear what ties, if any, Jamaat has to Daesh, whose leadership is a rival to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda over claims to represent the true Islamist Caliphate.
Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has major oil and gas resources, but is afflicted by Islamist militancy, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and a separatist insurgency.
Quetta has long been regarded as a base for the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership has regularly held meetings there in the past.
The security situation in Balochistan is already murky and confused.
The province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has major oil and gas resources but is afflicted by Islamist militancy, sectarian violence and a separatist insurgency.
It is also the site of China’s ambitious $46 billion (£35bn) infrastructure project linking its western province of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan.
Pakistan’s army said on Monday that the Quetta attack was “specially targeting” the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The project has been hit by numerous separatist attacks in the past but China has said it is confident that the Pakistani military is in control.