Pakistani troops recapture Lahore police academy

LAHORE, Pakistan Mon Mar 30, 2009 6:05pm BST

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LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani commandos stormed a police academy in Lahore on Monday, overwhelming suspected Taliban fighters who killed eight cadets and wounded scores in a rampage through the complex.

"The operation is over. Four terrorists were killed and three arrested," Interior Ministry Secretary Kamal Shah told Reuters. He said 89 policemen were wounded.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said the militants were believed to be fighters loyal to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud who had come from the South Waziristan tribal region.

"The entire planning was done there," Malik told a news conference in Lahore.

He said one of the men captured was an Afghan who arrived in eastern city 15 days earlier and had rented a house there.

"Some of his accomplices have been identified, while others are in the process of being identified," Malik said.

Punjab police chief Khawaja Khalid Farooq and a military spokesman said eight recruits were killed. although there had been reports the toll would be higher because there were 900 cadets in the academy at the time.

Three of the militants blew themselves up during the final assault and commandos rescued 10 police officers held hostage inside the main building.

Malik said the wounded taken to hospital were being screened to ensure no militants were hiding among them.

Television news channels showed jubilant police shouting praise to Allah, making "V" for victory signs with their fingers, and firing in the air in celebration minutes after the last firefight at the end of the eight-hour siege.

The latest attack will heighten fears about growing insecurity in nuclear-armed Pakistan. The assault took place less than a month after gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, killing six police guards and a bus driver. Those gunmen escaped.

Islamist militants have launched a campaign of violence to destabilise the Muslim country of 170 million people

U.S. President Barack Obama made support for President Asif Ali Zardari a centrepiece of a review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan that was announced on Friday.

The principle objective of Obama's strategy is the annihilation of al Qaeda in the two countries.

FINAL ASSAULT

The gunmen attacked in groups of three or four from all sides while police recruits were going through their regular morning drill on the parade ground at about 7:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. British time).

A wounded policeman described the attack to reporters gathered round his hospital bed.

"A grenade hit the platoon next to ours ... then there was continuous firing for about 20 minutes," he said.

"A man in light-coloured clothes -- I think they were white -- stood in front of us, firing at us. They wanted to do as much damage as possible."

The gunmen went on to occupy the academy's main building, and another wounded policeman recounted how he jumped from a second-floor window to escape when the gunmen burst into a room and opened fire.

Just before 4 p.m., commandos launched an operation to retake the building, at the climax of a joint operation by the army, paramilitary rangers and a crack police squad.

"Our forces stormed the top floor where they were holding positions," said Major-General Shafqaat Ahmed, commander of the Lahore army garrison.

Before the siege ended, Punjab police chief Farooq said one of the suspected attackers had been caught. Footage showed police kicking a bearded man on the ground before leading him through a throng of journalists.

Despite the attack in Lahore, Pakistani stocks and the rupee firmed as investors registered relief that a recent political crisis had subsided.

Militant violence has surged in Pakistan since mid-2007, with attacks on security forces and government and Western targets.

While there have been attacks in all Pakistan's big cities, most violence has been in the northwest, in regions such as South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

(Additional reporting by Mohsin Raza, Robert Birsel and Zeeshan Haider; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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