LAHORE, Pakistan — Heavily armed militants stormed a police training center in the heart of Pakistan's most heavily populated and richest province Monday, adding to growing fears that the Islamic insurgency has spread to the country's heartland from its northwest frontier with Afghanistan and threatens key institutions of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
Pakistani police commandos celebrated by firing into the air after an eight-hour gun battle with terrorists in which at least 11 people were killed, including eight police recruits. Another 95 people were wounded, and the militants took a number of police recruits hostage before some of them retreated to the top floor of the school, where they left evidence of their fanaticism.
A severed head lay on the floor. It was blown off when the man detonated his suicide vest, but his bearded face was still largely intact. The pillar behind it was splattered in blood. Most of his body was about 2 yards away, with one arm outstretched; police later took fingerprints from it. Bits of flesh were sprayed around the room, and flies buzzed around.
The attack in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, was another in a series of well-planned assaults on Pakistan's institutions, and it came shortly after President Barack Obama warned last week that "al Qaida and its allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."
Never miss a local story.
The police force has been a favorite target of Islamic extremists in their two-year campaign against the U.S.-backed Pakistani government. Earlier this month, terrorists attacked police who were guarding a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, and that was followed by a suicide bombing at a police station in Islamabad, the nation's capital.
A suicide attack Friday on a mosque in the northwestern tribal area, in which the death toll reportedly now stands at up to 103, also apparently was aimed at law enforcement agencies. Police and paramilitary units from a nearby post worshipped at the mosque.
"They (the militants) are terrorizing the police," said Imtiaz Gul, the chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies, a policy research institute in Islamabad. "They're hitting at the symbols of state. The institutions that are supposed to provide security and protection are themselves under attack. So what protection should the common citizen hope for?"
In Swat, a valley in the northwest, more than half the police officers have fled over the last two years after Taliban militants attempted a bloody takeover, attacking police posts and stations and even the funeral of a police officer.
The Pakistani government complains that police and paramilitary forces, which are under civilian control, have received little Western support.
"We have no money. Help us arm our police, train our police. That's not a lot to ask for," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and a spokesperson for President Asif Ali Zardari. "You (the West) are damning the democratic process in Pakistan. Every time there's a dictatorship, money flows, but under a democratic government, all we've had is an IMF program and belt-tightening."
On Monday, the police, backed by the army, fought back successfully against the militants and averted a bloodbath that had seemed likely earlier in the day, in perhaps the first such successful counter-terrorism operation in the current cycle of violence.
It had started as an ordinary day at the Lahore police school, with a parade of the cadets at the front of the training school. At around 7:30 a.m., eyewitnesses said, gunmen jumped over the low perimeter wall from several directions. They threw grenades at the recruits, then started firing indiscriminately. The 800 trainees, all unarmed, scattered.
"They came over (the wall) like guerrillas, wearing scarves over their faces. They came from three different points. It was a heavy attack, with grenades," said trainee Omar Butt, who's 22. "We crawled out (of the compound) on our elbows."
Those who couldn't get out of the school hid on the roof, in the laundry room, anywhere they could find refuge. In the sleeping quarters on the first floor, Gul Hussain, 21, lay on a mattress and covered himself with a sheet for about two hours, until he was rescued.
"They (the terrorists) were chanting slogans, 'God is great' and other things. I lay there and just didn't move," said Hussain, who like the other recruits had received just two months of training.
Late Monday, what had happened to the majority of the gunmen remained an unsettling mystery. Witnesses said that eight to 14 militants had attacked the police school, but perhaps four died and only one person was arrested. The authorities suggested that some terrorists, wearing police uniforms, could be among the wounded at the hospital.
Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief, said that the captured suspect, a pale-skinned 19-year-old with a trim beard, was from Afghanistan. Malik said he thought that the operation had been planned in Pakistan's wild South Waziristan region near the Afghan border, under the auspices of warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who leads the main Pakistani Taliban faction.
"This is not a law and order issue. This is an attack on Pakistan. We have two choices: Hand the country over to the Taliban or fight it out," Malik said after visiting the site of the attack.
Some analysts think that the attackers could have been a militant group based in Pakistan's Punjab province that's accused of a coordinated attack on Mumbai, India, last November, that killed dozens of people.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is headquartered in Lahore and specializes in gun assaults, hasn't previously turned on the Pakistani state, but it's thought to feel betrayed by the country, which once secretly backed it but launched a limited crackdown after the Mumbai attacks.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY