LAHORE   -   At least 10 people, most of them security men, were martyred in a suicide attack outside the Data Darbar in Lahore on Wednesday, shattering years of relative peace in the metropolis.

Over 20 others were wounded in the blast that came at 8:44am when a suicide bomber approached an Elite Police Force vehicle and detonated his explosive jacket.

Punjab Inspector General of Police Arif Nawaz confirmed that four Elite Force personnel were among the martyred. Hospital sources said that at least as many of the injured were in critical condition.

Investigators said the bomber tried to enter the shrine but detonated the explosive device strapped to his chest upon being stopped by the policemen at the checkpoint, right outside the Gate No 2 which is specified for entry of woman.

Emergency was declared in all public hospitals soon after the blast which shook the city’s downtown in the morning when most of the shopkeepers were yet to open their businesses and traffic movement was also thin on the roads.

Most of the wounded were shifted to the Mayo Hospital and some of them were critical, rescue workers said. At least seven bodies were also taken to Mayo Hospital, while two bodies were shifted to the King Edward Medical University morgue.

Seven of the dead were identified by police as Head Constable Muhammad Sohail, Head Constable Shahid Nazir, Head Constable Gulzar Ali, Constable Muhammad Saleem, private security guards Rafaqat Ali and Muhammad Rafique and a passerby Nawaz Hassan. The police were yet to ascertain the identity of the other three persons.

The attack came despite a general surge in security and a high-alert across the Punjab in the holy month of Ramazan, when there is greater threat of terrorism and sectarian killings.

Hizbul Ahrar, an offshoot of the infamous Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed credit for the brutal act. The Taliban in recent years have attacked police force a number of times in Lahore.

IGP Arif Nawaz told reporters that the bomber targeted the police van guarding the. “Definitely, police were the target,” he said to a question.

Built in the 11th century, the shrine of leading Sufi Hazarat Ali Hajveri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bux, is considered to be the largest in South Asia. The shrine is guarded heavily since 2010 when a suicide bombing there killed more than 40 people.

The counter-terrorism department late Wednesday registered the First Information Report (FIR) of the incident against three suspects. A police official said, according to the FIR, two facilitators were also accompanying the bomber. “They (facilitators) said good-by to the bomber by shaking hands and waited for a few seconds nearby before disappearing in the narrow streets adjacent to the shrine,” he said.

The police were examining CCTV footage collected from various locations to identify the bomber and his accomplices.

A video-clip shared with reporters in Lahore shows a teenage boy, clad in Sahlwar Kameez and waistcoat, moving towards the elite police vehicle on foot outside the Gate No 2 and exploding his vest upon approaching near the police van. Another clip shows the bomber coming towards the shrine after crossing the main road from Minar-e-Pakistan side.

Eyewitnesses described the blast as horrific. “It was very loud explosion. I immediately sat down as the broken windowpanes of a nearby shop hit my head,” said Ahmad, one of the wounded admitted to the Mayo Hospital.

“Thanks God, there was no rush of people at the time of the blast. Otherwise, there would have been massive casualties,” said another injured named Aslam. He said he was going to his workplace when something hit him very hard on the back.

IGP Arif Nawaz Khan said more that 7-kg explosive material was used in the bomb. Forensic experts and police investigators said ball-bearings and shrapnel were also used in the explosive device to inflict maximum damage.

The FIR was registered with the Lahore CTD police under section 302/324, 186/353, 427/34, 120-B/109 of the PPC, ESA 3/4, and Section 7 of the Anti Terrorism Act 1997. The FIR was lodged on the complaint of an inspector of the CTD police.

An official said the body parts of the suicide bomber were sent to the morgue. Forensic experts also reached the spot to examine the crime scene as police sealed off the locality and launched massive security sweep to hunt down the facilitators of the bomber.

 Funeral of cops

The funeral prayers for the four police martyrs were held at the Police Lines Qila Gujjar Singh Wednesday afternoon. Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar and a large number of police officers attended the funeral amid tight security. Later, the bodies were handed over to the families for burial.

Punjab IGP Arif Khan, who visited the crime scene after the blast, condemned the terror attack on the Elite Force. He said the police officers and officials sacrificing their lives in the line of duty during the holy month of Ramazan are the guiding path for the nation and the police force.

He said that Punjab Police are acting as frontline soldier in the war against terrorism and sacrifices of police officials for peace in the country will not go waste. He said that the welfare of families of police martyrs is the foremost responsibility of the department.

The IGP said that crackdown against the suspected militants should be geared up in all the districts of the Punjab with massive armed patrolling around mosques, Imambargahs, and other worship places.

 Peace disturbed

Wednesday’s suicide blast shattered almost two years of relative calm in the provincial capital. In July 2017, at least 25 people mostly policemen were killed and several others were wounded when a suicide bomber blew up his jacket near Arfa Kareem Tower in Lahore.

At least 15 people including two senior police officers were martyred and 85 others injured when a suicide bomber targeted a group of policemen The Mall in Lahore in February 2017. The Jamatul Ahrar, the same TTP offshoot that carried out yesterday’s bombing, had claimed responsibility for the 2017 attack. DIG Syed Ahmad Mobin and SSP Zahid Gondal had also died in the bombing.

The latest bomb attack on the Punjab Police comes just days after the police intensified security of the worship places and shrines in the holy month, though there were no specific terror warnings.

The police are ordered to stay alert as authorities launch security sweep and combing operation across the province to unearth suspected elements.