At least five policemen were martyred in what officials described as a suicide bombing targeting an Elite Force van detailed to the security of the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore on Wednesday.
Three civilians also lost their lives in the attack while 26 people were reported injured.
King Edward Medical University Vice Chancellor Professor Khalid Gondal said the death toll has risen to nine [including a suspected attacker], while the condition of four of the injured is critical.
Some of the wounded have also been admitted to Mayo Hospital, where an emergency has been imposed. Prof Gondal added that seven bodies had been shifted to Mayo Hospital while two are at the morgue in King Edward Medical University.
Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP) Arif Nawaz confirmed that five Elite Force personnel were martyred in the blast.
How it happened
At 8:45am this morning, an explosion took place in the proximity of a police mobile parked near Data Darbar's Gate 2, the entrance for female visitors to the shrine.
The impact of the blast shattered the windows in nearby vehicles and buildings, bystanders told DawnNewsTV.
Police officials believe the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. The Punjab chief minister's spokesperson, Shahbaz Gill, told reporters that the attacker was a 15-year-old boy. The teenager came out of a fruit shop, crossed over to the police van, and then detonated the bomb, Gill said.
An initial probe has revealed that the bomb contained seven kilograms of explosive material.
Television footage showed the husks of damaged vehicles littering the pavement near the shrine as first responders rushed to the scene, while security forces fanned out to launch a search operation and secure the area.
Police set up checkpoints on main thoroughfares leading to the shrine and hospitals have been placed on alert, officials told Reuters.
The shrine was immediately evacuated, with devotees moved out through exits away from the blast site. Entry to Data Darbar has since been restricted.
The site of the attack was cordoned off for rescue efforts and investigation.
A heavy contingent of police, Counter-Terrorism Department and forensic officials collected evidence from the site of the attack. The IGP said police would share their findings once they conclude their probe.
All regional police officers and city police officers have been directed to examine security arrangements in their respective areas and remain alert during the month of Ramazan.
Officials believe that today's attack highlights a need for vigilance by people gathering for worship during Ramazan. "People should remain aware of their surroundings when going to pray," suggested Punjab provincial minister Mian Aslam.
'Police 100pc the target'
A pair of suicide attacks at the popular 11th century Sufi shrine in 2010 killed and wounded dozens of people. Since then, the area has been increasingly hemmed in by heavy security, with visitors forced to pass through several layers of screening before they can enter the complex.
IGP Arif Nawaz, while addressing a press conference, said that police are posted near the shrine around the clock to provide security.
He said that authorities had maintained a general security alert, but there had been no specific warning about a threat to the shrine.
The IGP said the attacker could have caused more damage because of the direction he had approached from, but he instead made a beeline for the police car stationed in the area for protection of the shrine.
According to the DIG Operations Ashfaq Khan, some 306 police officials in the city have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Buzdar orders inquiry
Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar condemned the attack and ordered an inquiry into the incident, summoning reports from the Punjab Inspector General of Police and the additional chief secretary of interior, according to a handout issued by the Punjab government.
The chief minister also called a high-level meeting at the Punjab Safe City Headquarters and cancelled his scheduled visits to Bhakkar, Sargodha and Sheikhupura. He was briefed at the headquarters and said that he has been monitoring the situation.
The chief minister offered his condolences to the families of the victims and instructed administrations to provide the injured with the best facilities for treatment.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also condemned the loss of lives in the attack, expressing grief and condoling with the victims’ families for their loss.
PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif and Awami National Party General Secretary Ameer Hoti both condemned the attack.
The former chief minister of Punjab expressed grief at the loss of life and said, "The peace that prevailed in the last five years needs to be restored in the country."
"Terrorists have no religion. The government and law enforcement agencies should be worried about such incidents of terrorism," Hoti said.
Attacks continue despite crackdown
Data Darbar is one of the country's most popular Sufi shrines where Sufi saint Syed Ali bin Osman Al Hajvery is buried.
Pakistanis in large numbers visit the 11th century shrine, which has long been home to colourful Sufi festivals and a prime destination for the country's myriad sects, making it a soft target for militant attacks.
Although security has dramatically improved and militant violence sharply declined in Pakistan following a sustained crackdown against terrorism in recent years after the Peshawar Army Public School attack in 2014, militants retain the ability to carry out dramatic attacks.
Over the last two years, Lahore has been free of the kind of attacks that were once common.
An attack in the city in March last year left nine people dead, while a major blast in a park in 2016 targeting Christians celebrating Easter killed more than 70 people.