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Pakistani Taliban Claim They Were Behind Lahore Attack

Volunteers transport an injured victim at the scene of the suicide car bomb attack in Lahore on May 27.
PESHAWAR (Reuters) -- Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for a suicide gun and bomb attack in the city of Lahore on May 27 that killed 24 people and wounded nearly 300.

The government said the attack in a high-security area where a police headquarters, emergency-services building, and a military-intelligence office are located, was revenge for an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad.

The army moved against the militants in the Swat region late last month after the Taliban had seized a district only 100 kilometers from the capital and a peace pact collapsed.

A militant commander loyal to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud said the Lahore attack was to avenge the offensive in Swat.

"We have achieved our target. We were looking for this target for a long time. It was a reaction to the Swat operation," the commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Militant violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has surged since mid-2007, with numerous attacks on the security forces, as well as on government and Western targets.

The violence and a perception the government was being distracted by political squabbling and failing to act to stop the Taliban had alarmed the United States and other Western allies.

Pakistan is vital for U.S. plans to defeat Al-Qaeda and cut support for the Afghan Taliban and the United States has been heartened by the Swat offensive and by public support for it.

"The response by the military so far has the support of the Pakistani people," White House national security adviser General James Jones said in Washington on May 27.

"The government's popularity has shot up a little bit in the polls and that is going to have an effect in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

'Major Attacks'

But militant attacks in cities could undermine support for the offensive and Hakimullah Mehsud warned of more violence.

"We want the people of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Multan to leave those cities as we plan major attacks against government facilities in coming days and weeks," he said.

The military released late on May 27 what it said was a tape of an intercepted telephone call between the Taliban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, and an unidentified militant in which Khan urges revenge attacks.

"There's a need for them to strike soldiers in Punjab so that they can understand and feel pain," Khan says on the tape, broadcast on Pakistani television.

"Strikes should be carried out on their homes so their kids get killed and then they'll realise," he said.

The unidentified man said militants had been ordered to strike wherever they could.

The government has vowed to defeat the Taliban and on May 28 it published an offer of a reward of 5 million rupees ($60,000) for the capture, dead or alive, of the Taliban leader in Swat, Fazlullah, and smaller bounties for 20 of his comrades.

Authorities have warned that militants might launch attacks in retaliation for the offensive in Swat, where the military says about 1,100 militants and about 60 soldiers have been killed. There has been no independent confirmation of those estimates.

Soldiers had made progress in securing Swat's main town of Mingora, with a commander saying 70 percent of it had been cleared and the remainder would be secured in two or three days.

The offensive has sparked an exodus of 2.3 million people, according to provincial government figures, and the country faces a long-term humanitarian crisis which could also undermine public support for the fight against the Taliban.

But the securing of Mingora would raise the possibility of many of the displaced beginning to go home.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said after the Lahore attack that the militants were on their last legs and getting desperate.

The car bomb brought down a government ambulance service building and damaged a nearby office of the military's main Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Two ISI officers and six other agency officials were among the dead and security officials said their office might have been the target.

Lahore is capital of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and prosperous province. The country's second-biggest city is also traditionally home to top bureaucrats and senior military brass.

The city has seen several bomb attacks over the past couple of years, but it felt much safer than other parts of the country until March, when militants launched two brazen assaults.