SHADI KHAN - A gravely hurt Pakistan Sunday expressed its strong resolve to keep fighting the terrorists after one of its top men fighting the menace in the most populous province was martyred along with 17 others in a suicide attack.

Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada was meeting people of his Attock district hometown, Shadi Khan, at his political office when two suicide bombers detonated powerful bombs, in which scores other were also injured.

“We will not let go Shuja Khanzada’s sacrifice in vain,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement expressing grief on the death of the minister – who had a leading role in the implementation of National Action Plan against terrorists in Punjab, where authorities announced three-day mourning.

Army Chief General Raheel said Shuja was brave man, like his name suggested, and he ordered intelligence agencies to trace the attackers as soon as possible. President Mamnoon Hussain in his message said that terrorists cannot weaken the resolve of the nation through such cowardly attacks.

At least 70 people were sitting in the 50x50 room when the blast took place, forcing the roof to collapse, and trapping the visitors and Khanzada under the debris.

Rescue workers and troops from Quick Reaction Force of the army rushed to Shadi Khan as soon as the news spread. However, rescue work started late due to the remoteness of the area and lack of adequate equipment. By Sunday afternoon, a lone crane was busy in pulling out the debris as rescue workers scavenged through the pile of bricks and dirt.

The body of Khanzada, 71, was recovered from under the rubble after hours of rescue along with 14 other bodiesand was transferred to Rawalpindi via helicopter. A police spokeswoman said two police officers were also among the dead in the attack including DSP Hazro Shaukat Shah.

Some residents pointed out that security was lax at the premises. Despite reports of life threats to the minister, no proper security checks were performed on the visitors. The gate of the Khanzada House was always open to the public. As per the locals, the gate of the Khanzada House always remain open for the public and no proper security arrangements were ever made

Those whose bodies were recovered from the rubble include Shuja Khanzada, Hafiz Fayaz , Naseer, Naveed, Qayyum , Shahzada, Ajmal, Shoukat Shah, Hafiz Iqbal , Muhammad Iqbal , Asif Khan and two unknown persons.

Later, five more persons have succumbed to their injuries. Rescue 1122 Attock incharge Dr Mian Ashfaq told reporters that Zamurd Khan, Khair ul Wara, Usman, Sardar and Roman could not survive after getting critically injured in the incident in the different hospital and the death toll had reached to 18.

Funeral prayers of the martyred home minister and DSP Shoukat were offered at Police Line Attock, which was attended by Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, KPK Chief Minister Pervez Khattak , Provincial Minister Chaudhry Sher Ali, Advisor Health Punjab Salman Rafiq , State Minister Sheikh Aftab Ahmad , Former State Minister Amin Aslam , Commandant Artillery Centre Attock Brig Waqar Mehdi , Punjab IGP Mushtaq Sukhera and others. The martyed provincial home minister was laid to rest at his ancestral graveyard in Shadi Khan.

Khanzada has left a widow, a son and two daughters bereaved. Among the dead, five were also close relatives of the martyred minister. Khanzada’z son Jahangir Khanzada was lucky to escape the blast as he was with his father but left the room moments before the incident for some routine work. “Then there was a huge blast and I saw that the room where my father was sitting had collapsed and there was hue and cry all around,” Jahangir told The Nation.

Different militant groups jumped on the opportunity to claim the responsibility of the incident. A Taliban-affiliated militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, was the first who claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was retaliation for military operations against them. “Such types of attacks will continue in the future,” Saluddin Ayubi was quoted as saying by Reuters. Another militant movement, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban calling itself Jamaatul Later, Ahrar, also claimed responsibility. Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for the hardline Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, saying it was revenge for the killing of a sectarian militant commander and others.

Last month the leader of an anti-Shia group behind some of Pakistan’s worst sectarian atrocities was killed in a shootout with police, along with 13 other militants. “The Attock attack is revenge for the martyrdom of Malik Ishaq shaheed (martyr) and other mujahideen brothers,” Ehsan said.

Meanwhile, Security agencies and Anti-Terrorism Department of Punjab have decided to launch a major cleanup armed operation in Attock, Hazro, Hassanabdal and adjoining areas.

The sources said that Attock and adjoining areas are considered as a safe haven for terrorists from South Punjab and tribal areas. At the same time, the Punjab government has ordered high security alert for top government functionaries, political and religious leaders, provincial ministers and lawmakers.

The law enforcement agencies have been asked to keep security at high alert at the residences of these signatories. On the instructions of the Inspector General of the Punjab Police, checking has been intensified at all entry and exit points of all major cities in addition to search operations.