QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani militants struck at the heart of the country's legal profession on Monday, killing a prominent attorney and then bombing the hospital where dozens of other lawyers had gathered to mourn. The twin attacks killed at least 70 people, most of them lawyers, authorities said.
A breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks in Quetta, the capital of restive Baluchistan province, which also wounded dozens of others.
In a statement, Ahsanullah Ahsan, spokesman for the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar militant group, said its fighters killed Bilal Kasi, the president of the Baluchistan Bar Association, then as dozens of lawyers gathered at the government-run Civil Hospital, a suicide bomber targeted the mourners.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has been behind several attacks in Pakistan in recent years, including a deadly March bombing on Easter Sunday in a park in the eastern city of Lahore that killed at least 70 people.
Witnesses described horrifying scenes of bodies scattered on the ground and the wounded screaming out for help.
A senior police official said Kasi was shot and killed by gunmen as he was on his way to his office. Kasi was among the most outspoken lawyers in Baluchistan province and was popular for campaigning for improvements in the legal community.
"It was a suicide attack," said the police official, Zahoor Ahmed Afridi. He said remains of the attacker had been found and authorities were trying to identify them.
Ninety-two people were wounded in the explosion, according to Civil Hospital director Abdul Rehman. Two journalists working for Pakistani news channels were among those killed in the attack, according to Shahzada Zulfiqar, the president of the Quetta Press Club.
Ali Zafar, the head of the country's main lawyers' association, condemned the blast as "an attack on justice." He said lawyers would observe three days of mourning and would not appear in court in solidarity with their colleagues and others killed in the attack.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau condemned the targeting of "a hospital, as well as the judiciary and the media, two of the most important pillars of every democracy," and vowed to work with Pakistan to combat the threat of terrorism.
Survivors described scenes of panic as the blast ripped through the emergency room.
Waliur Rehman said he was taking his ailing father to the emergency ward when the explosion shook the building, knocking them both to the ground. "There were bodies everywhere," he said.
Another witness, lawyer Abdul Latif, said he had just arrived at the hospital to express his grief over Kasi's killing, and was horrified to "see the bodies of dozens of other lawyers" lying in pools of blood on the floor.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the blast and expressed his "deep grief and anguish over the loss of precious human lives."
"No one will be allowed to disturb the peace in the province that has been restored thanks to the countless sacrifices by the security forces, police and the people of Baluchistan," he said in a statement. Sharif urged local authorities to maintain utmost vigilance and beef up security in Quetta.
Later Monday, the prime minister traveled to Quetta to meet the wounded and assess the situation. At a high-level meeting of security officials Sharif ordered stern action against terrorists.
"Terrorists are using innovating measures by hitting soft targets and one must respond in an advanced coordinated way," he said in a statement.
Earlier, Pakistan's powerful army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif also visited the hospital, and met with the wounded. According to a military statement, the army chief ordered intelligence agencies to track down and apprehend all those linked to Monday's attack.
Quetta and the rest of Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, have long been plagued by insurgency. Several ethnic Baluch separatist groups operate in the resource-rich province, as well as al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups.
Lawyers have been targeted in the past by militants in various parts of Pakistan. They are considered an important part of civil society and emerged as powerful actors in 2007, when then-President Pervez Musharraf fired the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Lawyers launched nationwide protests to pressure Musharraf to reinstate Chaudhry. Later, political parties joined the campaign and Musharraf was ultimately forced to resign in 2008 and Chaudhry was reinstated.