LAHORE, Pakistan — Black-clad Pakistani commandos overpowered a group of militants who had seized a police academy, took cadets hostage and killed at least six of them Monday in a dramatic challenge to the civilian government that faces U.S. pressure to defeat Islamic extremists.
The security forces stormed the compound on the outskirts of Lahore to end the eight-hour siege by the grenade-throwing gunmen, with three militants blowing themselves up and authorities arresting four, officials said. At least three other unidentified bodies were recovered.
Pakistan's top civilian security official said militant groups were "destabilizing the country," suggesting the plot may have originated with Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Meanwhile, a Taliban member claiming to speak on behalf of a shadowy little-known group called the Fedayeen al-Islam said it was behind the attack.
Earlier this month, gunmen ambushed Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore, killing seven people and underscoring militants' ability to wreak havoc far from Pakistan's northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban have proliferated.
Both Lahore attacks followed a crackdown on the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the November 2008 siege in Mumbai, India, that killed 164. There has been speculation that Monday's raid was revenge for the crackdown.
The primary victims of both attacks were Pakistan's undermanned and underequipped police, a militant strategy that appears designed to expose state institutions as weak.
Pakistan's inability to prevent the attack appeared to be an intelligence failure. Nonetheless, a massive response was quickly mounted Monday, one that included army soldiers, armored vehicles and helicopters.
The siege ended after security forces cornered several militants on the top floor of a building in the compound, where the gunmen had held about 35 hostages. Afterward, the security forces fired their guns in the air in celebration, shouting "God is great!"
"The eight hours were like eight centuries," said Mohammad Salman, 23, a recruit who had holed up in the building. "It was like I died several times. I had made up my mind that it was all over."
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik suggested the culprit could have been Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Punjab-based, al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremist group implicated in several other attacks in the country.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is one of several militant groups that operate well beyond Pakistan's northwest. Some of them, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, have their roots in the Kashmir dispute with India, and Pakistani spy agencies are believed to have helped establish them.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has denied any links to either the Mumbai or cricket attacks.
Malik also said the plot may have originated with the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest — noting that one of the arrested attackers was Afghan — and added that "some rival country," a usual reference to India, was trying to derail democracy in Pakistan.
"In our country, at our different borders, arms are coming in, stinger missiles are coming in, rocket launchers are coming in, heavy equipment is coming — it should be stopped," he told state TV. "Whoever the anti-state elements are, they are destabilizing the country."
The attacks pose a major test for the civilian administration of President Asif Ali Zardari, which has been distracted recently by political turmoil involving the opposition.
Pakistan's stability is of paramount concern to the U.S., which is fighting a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan more than seven years after the American-led invasion ousted the militant regime from power there. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to use hideouts in Pakistan's northwest to plan attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Last week, President Barack Obama pledged more aid to Pakistan to help it fight militancy, while also urging it to tackle the "cancer" of extremism. He also warned that Pakistan could not expect a "blank check."
Obama's comments came amid continued complaints by U.S. officials that Pakistan's spy agencies still keep ties with some insurgent groups.
The attack exposed the state's weak police apparatus, something that could further demoralize many Pakistanis already unhappy with their nation's alliance with the United States and its support for the war in Afghanistan.
Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the result of the attack was "greater fear."
"As a result of greater fear, there will be greater silence," she said. "Everyone is so fearful of the lethality of these organizations, people won't get up to protest. The government is willing to crack down on these groups, but the state can't achieve anything without pressure from society."
Abdullah Chaudhry, a 30-year-old driver watching the drama unfold, bemoaned the state's failings and asked, "If the police can be attacked like this, what chance does the common man have?"
The attack on the Manawan Police Training School began with sudden explosions that startled hundreds of trainees during a morning drill. About 700 were inside, and officials said more than 90 police were wounded.
"We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions," said Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital. He described the attackers as bearded and young.
Government official Rao Iftikhar confirmed the death toll, saying three militants blew themselves up. Police official Ahsan Younus told The Associated Press that some of the attackers wore police uniforms and took hostages.
The standoff played out for hours on Pakistani television, similar to the Mumbai attacks.
TV reports showed frightened police trainees jumping over the academy wall to flee. Farther back, masses of security forces and civilians monitored the tense standoff, taking shelter behind rescue vehicles. Armored vehicles entered the compound while helicopters hovered.
Police captured one of the suspected gunmen six hours after the initial assault, dragging the bearded man to a field outside the academy and kicking him — all caught on camera.
After the siege, investigators sealed off the blood-spattered upper floor of a building where police said attackers blew themselves up to avoid capture.
Reporters looking through windows saw a severed head among the recruits' scattered bedrolls and metal trunks, on top of which police had lined up two assault rifles, several spare magazines and about a dozen grenades. One investigator gingerly fingerprinted a severed hand.
Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said Pakistan has largely ignored some regional militant groups because successive governments have viewed them as allies in the conflict with India.
She said authorities need to recognize that the threat is not just from al-Qaida and Taliban militants on the Afghan border. "It is a threat and challenge that emanates from the heartland and can only be countered by civilian action and civilian efforts," she said
Dogar reported from Lahore, Toosi from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad, Sebastian Abbot, and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Stephen Graham, Zarar Khan and K.M. Chaudhry in Lahore contributed to this report.