Two senior police officers were among those killed by a suspected suicide bomb attack on Monday in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
The blast ripped through a crowd of people who had gathered for a protest by chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers outside the provincial assembly on Mall Road, Lahore’s grand, Raj-era thoroughfare.
Early reports suggested at least 10 people had been killed while 60 were injured, with many rushed to hospital.
Some eyewitnesses told local media they saw a man on a motorbike cause an explosion in the middle of the crowd. The force was such that a nearby television news van was almost entirely destroyed by the blast.
“Apparently it was a suicide blast but police are still investigating to know the exact nature,” a Punjab police spokesman, Nayab Haider, told Reuters.
A spokesman for Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. Previous attacks have attracted multiple claims of responsibility from rival groups and it was impossible to immediately verify Jamaat-ur-Ahrar’s claim.
Among the dead were Zahid Gondal and Ahmad Mobin, both senior figures in the police in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most influential province, of which Lahore is the capital. Mobin, a deputy inspector general of police, had been on Mall Road to urge the manufacturers to end their protest.
Security forces, including heavy contingents of soldiers, cordoned off the area of the blast.
Officials in the city had been braced for an incident after the National Counter Terrorism Authority issued a warning on 7 February that “an unidentified terrorist group has planned a terrorist attack in Lahore”.
It urged “extreme vigilance and heightened security measures”.
But Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister, said it had been impossible to protect the crowd of protesters gathered on an open street.
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar also claimed responsibility for an Easter Day bombing in Lahore last year that killed more than 70 people in a public park.
That attack led to tensions between the civilian government and the army, which demanded extra powers to tackle militant groups in the province. But the ruling faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by prime minister Nawaz Sharif refused to countenance an expanded military presence in Punjab, the party’s political heartland.
Sharif said the attacks would not weaken Pakistan’s resolve in the fight against militancy. “We have fought this fight against the terrorists among us, and will continue to fight it until we liberate our people of this cancer, and avenge those who have laid down their lives for us,” Sharif said in a statement.
Army-led operations against militant groups in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have been credited with a steep decline in terrorist incidents around the country in recent years.