Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 15:35 UK

Official confusion over Lahore siege

Pakistani soldiers take aim against militants in Manawan, Lahore
Pakistan's interior minister has urged the country to unite against insurgents

The attack on the Manawan police academy near Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore has underlined the vulnerability of the country to militant attacks.

The BBC's Ilyas Khan in Lahore looks at the official response to the siege.

Eight hours of siege, eight policemen killed, nearly 100 injured, and at the end of the day what do we know about the stand off at the Manawan police academy?

Very little, as usual.

And just as usual, analysts have continued to point out on television news shows that Pakistan has yet to stop being casual about the militant threat.

The handling of the police academy siege by top Pakistani officials goes to prove their point.

More than 24 hours after the siege, we still do not know how many militants stormed the academy, how many were killed, whether they took police recruits hostage, or whether they wore police uniforms.

Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, fired the first salvo two hours into the siege when he told the media that four people in civilian clothes had stormed the academy and gunned down the recruits.

Rehman Malik, head of the Pakistan Interior Ministry
Mr Malik: 'Injured police numbered 95' - nearly double the army figure

A construction worker present near the academy just before the attack told the BBC he saw five men wearing backpacks disembark from a white pickup truck in front of the academy's main gate and scale its walls "commando-style".

Head of the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, and the Punjab police chief, Khwaja Khalid Farooq, later put the number of attackers at between eight and 10.

This was contradicted by some injured police recruits interviewed by the BBC at the hospital, who claimed the attackers must have been more than 20 in number.

There is also confusion over the details of the attack.

The Manawan academy is essentially a composite of two buildings arranged in a single row. There is a long, and rather tall one-storey building to the west and a three-storey building to the east.

There is a huge parade ground in front of the two buildings, along the road to the south, and another ground at the back, to the north. Behind the northern ground is open country covered with knee-high wheat crop.

The entire compound is enclosed by a seven-foot tall wall.

Differing numbers

So, while four or five attackers came in from the front, did others scale the back wall and join up with their comrades in the central building area where the main drama unfolded?

Officials from the head of the interior ministry and the army spokesman to the provincial police chief failed to clear this up.

A Pakistani soldier inspects the damage to the attacked Manawan police academy
The question is, why do top Pakistani officials continue to make off the cuff remarks about a problem that appears to be ripping the country apart?

They did not even agree on how many attackers had been killed. While interior ministry official Rehman Malik said that three attackers "blew themselves up", an army official at the scene told newsmen that "four attackers have been killed".

Did the fourth attacker also blow himself up, or was he shot? In the latter case, where is his body? No answers.

Their versions on the number of injured policemen also differed, with Mr Malik giving the figure of 95 while the army official put it at 50.

Apparently, no-one did a last body count at the academy, and no serious attempt was made by the officials to interrogate eyewitnesses even though there were hundreds of them inside and outside the academy.

During the standoff, the police officials had told the media that some of the recruits had been taken hostage by the attackers.

Later, when three of the attackers blew themselves up, there was no mention of any of the hostages having been killed as a consequence.

'Rookie bombers'

The only confusion Mr Malik tried to clear towards the end of the day was to identify the attackers, saying they were sent by Baitullah Mehsud, a Taleban warlord based in South Waziristan.

The Taleban commander did indeed accept the responsibility for the attack on Tuesday.

But that hardly helps the credibility of the government.

Baitullah Mehsud has been blamed by the Pakistani government for carrying out the highly sophisticated operation which led to the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Some official quarters had also tended to implicate him in the daring attack on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore earlier this month which virtually brought an end to South Asian cricket, at least for the time being.

But the attack on the police academy matches these earlier attacks neither in sophistication nor in impact.

People gather on a road during the attack on the Manawan police academy
It is not known how many militants stormed the academy and how many were killed

As one veteran crime reporter based in Lahore put it, "these were rookie suicide bombers, too eager to blow themselves up".

The question is, why do top Pakistani officials continue to make off the cuff remarks about a problem that appears to be ripping the country apart?

Defence analysts in Pakistan may not say it in so many words, but some of them have been indicating between the lines that this apparent nonchalance is largely due to the continued interest of some sections in its powerful defence establishment to keep the militants afloat.

This deceptive duality breeds conspiracy theories for which Pakistanis are so famous.

The latest buzz in Lahore is that recent attacks in the city are part of the ground work being done by the "powers that be" - a veiled reference to the military - to depose President Asif Zardari, who they view as too eager to cooperate with the West in eliminating the Taleban.

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