Pakistan on Tuesday mourned the killing of at least 60 people in a brutal gun and suicide bomb assault on a police academy, the deadliest attack on a security installation in the country's history. Three gunmen burst into the sprawling academy in the south-west, targeting sleeping quarters home to some 700 recruits in a strike that sent terrified young men fleeing.
"I saw three men in camouflage whose faces were hidden carrying Kalashnikovs," one cadet told reporters. "They started firing and entered the dormitory but I managed to escape over a wall."
The attack on the Balochistan Police College, around 20 kilometres east of the provincial capital Quetta, began around 11:10 pm local time Monday, with gunfire continuing to ring out at the site for several hours.
Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister of Balochistan province, told reporters there had been three attackers.
"They first targeted the watch tower sentry, and after exchanging fire, killed him and were able to enter the academy grounds," he said.
Major General Sher Afgan, chief of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Balochistan which led the counter-operation, blamed the attack on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant group, and said the counter-strike was over in three hours.
Hiding under beds
Wounded cadets spoke of scurrying for cover after being woken by the sound of bullets. "I was asleep, my friends were there as well, and we took cover under the beds," one unidentified cadet told Geo TV. "My friends were shot, but I only received a wound on my head."
Another cadet said he did not have ammunition to fight back.
Officals said the attackers targeted the centre's hostel, where around 200 to 250 police recruits were resting. At least three explosions were reported at the scene by media.
Baluchistan is no stranger to violence, with separatist fighters launching regular attacks on security forces for nearly a decade and the military striking back.
Militants, particularly sectarian groups, have also launched a campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations of minority Shias.
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A Pakistani army soldier stands guard outside the Balochistan Police Training College in Quetta on October 24, 2016, after militants attacked the police academy.AFP
The claim game
An emailed claim from the Pakistani Taliban, which shares close operation ties with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), backed that assertion.
"This attack was carried on the instructions of Mullah Daud Mansour, close ally of Hakimullah Mehsud and head of Pakistani Taliban in Karachi," it said, adding four fighters took part.
"This was to avenge the killing of those of our Mujahideen who were killed indiscriminately in fake encounters outside jails in Punjab," it said in an apparent reference to the recent surge in extrajudicial executions of LeJ fighters.
The Islamic State group also made a claim via Amaq, its affiliated news agency, and released a picture of what it said were the three attackers. It was the latest competing claim from IS, which has struggled to gain traction in Pakistan against more established groups.
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Pakistani army soldiers arrive at the Balochistan Police Training College in Quetta on October 24, 2016, after militants attacked the police academy.AFP
Pakistan's top military and intelligence brass including army chief Raheel Sharif attended an official funeral ceremony for the victims, whose bodies were placed in coffins draped in white and borne by soldiers in dress uniform.
It was the third deadliest attack of the year in Pakistan, which has been racked by a homegrown Islamist insurgency since shortly after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Security was tight outside the academy Tuesday, with media kept out of the building as a large contingent of security forces swept the area. Weeping relatives were sent to the main hospital, where citizens rushed to donate blood.
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An injured Pakistani policeman lies on a bed at a hospital in Quetta on October 25, 2016, after an overnight militant attack on the Police Training College Balochistan.AFP
Mineral-rich but impoverished Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province, is beset by sectarian strife, Islamist violence and an on-off separatist insurgency that has lasted for decades.
The army has also repeatedly been accused by international rights groups of abuses there, particularly against nationalists demanding autonomy and a greater share of the region's resources.
In August, a suicide bombing at a Quetta hospital claimed by the IS and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban killed 73 people, including many of the city's legal community which had gone there to mourn the fatal shooting of a colleague.
Violence has declined in recent years following a series of military offensives in the northwest border areas as well as concerted efforts to block the militants' sources of funding.
But the remnants of militant groups are still able to carry out periodic bloody attacks, particularly in the northwest.