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Suicide bombing at Pakistani polio centre kills at least 15, officials say

Quetta, Pakistan: On the third day of a massive anti-polio drive in southern Pakistan, one of only two countries where the disease has not been eradicated, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a vaccination centre Wednesday, killing at least 15 people.

Officials said 25 others were wounded, some critically, in the explosion in Quetta, the capital of restive Baluchistan province.

Pakistani police and rescue workers examine the site of suicide bombing that killed at least 15 in Quetta, Pakistan on ...
Pakistani police and rescue workers examine the site of suicide bombing that killed at least 15 in Quetta, Pakistan on Wednesday. Photo: AP

It was the latest deadly attack aimed at the anti-polio campaign in Pakistan, where Islamist extremist groups believe the vaccine is a front for Western espionage. Two militant groups - the Pakistani Taliban and Jundullah, which has links with the Taliban and has pledged allegiance to Islamic State - separately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Officials said the bomber approached a vehicle near the polio centre in Quetta's Satellite Town district and detonated nearly 9 kilograms of explosives. Neighbours said the explosion caused cracks in nearby houses.

The suicide attack on a polio vaccination centre in southwestern Pakistan killed at least 15 people and wounded many, ...
The suicide attack on a polio vaccination centre in southwestern Pakistan killed at least 15 people and wounded many, officials said. Photo: AP

At least 13 police officers, one member of the paramilitary Frontier Corps and one civilian were killed. Officials said the death toll could rise further.

"It was a suicide blast, we have gathered evidence from the scene," Ahsan Mehboob, the provincial police chief told Reuters.

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"The police team had arrived to escort teams for the polio campaign."

Ahmed Marwat, who identified himself as a commander and spokesman for Jundullah, said his group was responsible.

An Afghan teacher, in brown, helps school children run from the site of clashes near the Pakistan consulate in ...
An Afghan teacher, in brown, helps school children run from the site of clashes near the Pakistan consulate in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on Wednesday. Photo: AP

"We claim the bomb blast on the polio office. In the coming days, we will make more attacks on polio vaccination offices and polio workers," he said by telephone.

The Pakistani Taliban also claimed responsibility in a statement released by their spokesman, Mohammad Khorasani.

An Afghan member of the security forces stands guard as a man helps school children run from the site of clashes near ...
An Afghan member of the security forces stands guard as a man helps school children run from the site of clashes near Pakistan's consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Wednesday. Photo: AP

The United Nations and international relief groups have long backed Pakistan's campaign against polio, a crippling childhood disease that still circulates only here and in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The three-day vaccination drive in Baluchistan and Pakistan's tribal belt, near the Afghan border, began Monday and was due to reach 2.4 million children younger than 5, including more than 55,000 children of Afghan refugees, officials said.

Tight security arrangements had been taken for the protection of volunteers and health workers, dozens of whom have been killed in previous attacks.

Pakistan saw a steep drop in new polio cases in 2015 as the army targeted militant strongholds in the tribal belt, improving access for health workers. Health officials said 52 new polio cases were reported in 2015, compared to 306 cases a year earlier.

Yet Pakistan's struggles with the disease mark a sharp contrast with its neighbour, India, which Wednesday marked five years without a new polio case. Nigeria, too, has made great strides against the disease, and last year was removed from the list of countries where polio is endemic, having not recorded a new case since July 2014.

Pakistani consulate in Afghanistan attacked

Pakistan was also the target of a suicide attack in Afghanistan on Wednesday. Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on the Pakistani consulate in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

Afghan officials said all three attackers and at least seven members of the security forces died during the attack, which hitherto had not struck high-profile Pakistani targets in Afghanistan.

Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said a suicide bomber had tried to join a queue of people seeking visas to Pakistan and blew himself up after being prevented from entering the building.

Witnesses in Jalalabad, the main trade gateway to the Khyber Pass and Pakistan, said heavy gunfire and a series of explosions could be heard during a battle that lasted several hours, and residents and children from a nearby school were evacuated.

Islamic State said on its official Telegram messaging service channel that three members wearing suicide-bomb vests carried out the attack, which it said had killed dozens of people including "several Pakistani intelligence officers".

It said two suicide attackers had been killed while a third escaped.

Pakistan condemned the attack but said all members of the consulate staff were safe, with one official slightly injured by broken glass.

Pakistani TV station attacked with explosives

Attackers on a motorcycle lobbed grenades and opened fire at a Pakistani television station on Wednesday, wounding one person, and left behind pamphlets linked to Islamic State, the station said.

The attack on the ARY News Islamabad office was the second such assault on media premises in as many months by the militant group claiming a connection with Islamic State's self-declared province of Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Security guards chased away the drive-by attackers, it said, and an editor hit by shrapnel in the head was hospitalised.

The pamphlets left behind said "Islamic State Khorasan Province" claimed responsibility for attacking media that it accused of "siding with the apostate army and government of Pakistan in their global crusade against Islam".

Pakistan's army is fighting a military campaign against Taliban and other militants in the country's northwest near the Afghan border.

In the past year, several commanders of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, though there is little public evidence so far of direct operational links with the Middle East-based militants' leadership.

The extent of actual militant involvement in attacks can also be difficult to verify. Police say extortionists often use the names of feared groups to intimidate their victims.

In December, an attacker threw a hand grenade at the offices of Din News in the eastern city of Lahore, leaving behind similar leaflets at the site of the attack. Four people were injured in that incident, Pakistani media reported. 

Los Angeles Times, Reuters