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RAWALPINDI, Feb 25: A suicide bomber blew up an army staff car on The Mall here on Monday, killing the army’s surgeon-general, his guard, driver and three pedestrians.

Lt-Gen Mushtaq Baig, surgeon-general and director general of the army’s Medical Services, was the most senior army officer killed by the militants so far. It was also the first terrorist attack in Rawalpindi after the general election.

Eyewitnesses and officials said the suicide attacker, believed to be in his 20s, had hidden himself under a shed set up by the Nadra Swift Registration Centre on The Mall.The officials said the suicide bomber came close to the surgeon-general’s car and blew himself up when it stopped at a red-light signal on the T&T Chowk at 2.45pm. The general and his driver, Lance Nike Anwar, were killed on the spot, while guard Hawaldar Nazar died later in hospital.

A pedestrian, Ms Ghulam Sakina, and a man were also killed.

The government said that eight people, including the army general, were killed and 20 others injured in the attack.

“They were eight people who died, including Lt-Gen Mushtaq Baig, his driver, a guard and five civilians, including a woman,” interior ministry spokesman Brig (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema told Dawn.

He said it was yet to be established which group was involved in the bomb attack but the involvement of an “external hand” could not be ruled out.

He said the attack seemed to be a part of the current spate of suicide bombings. “It is the same chain which has carried out attacks both on civilians and security personnel in the past.”

Six of the injured were taken to CMH, four to MH, five to Cantonment Hospital and one each to Rawalpindi General Hospital and the District Headquarters Hospital.

The general, along with his guard and driver, was going home from his office in his official black car. His car turned into a mangled heap of metal. Eight other cars, including a public service van carrying 12 passengers, were also damaged.

The sound of the blast was heard several kilometres away, sending a wave of panic and fear among residents of the city and the cantonment areas. Windowpanes of nearby buildings were smashed and private offices and shops located around The Mall evacuated.

Majid Jahangeer, who works in an office near the blast site, told Dawn that he came out of his office after hearing the thunder and saw thick clouds of smoke. “Nothing was visible, but there were many people lying on the road and others trapped in the vehicles,” he said.

Pieces of human flesh and broken glasses littered the street and traffic was diverted shortly after the blast.

Adeel Shahzad, the driver of the public service van who sustained minor injuries, said in Rawalpindi General Hospital that when he stopped his van at the signal, the general’s car was ahead of his vehicle.

Ambulances from Rescue 1122 rushed to the blast site near the army headquarters. A police team, led by City Police Officer Saud Aziz, also arrived at the place. The area was cordoned off and bomb disposal experts of the FIA’s Special Investigation Group collected evidences.

According to bomb disposal experts, a suicide belt containing four to five kilograms of explosive material and pellets of different sizes had been used in the blast.

Parts of bodies, including legs believed to be of the suicide bomber, were found. Brooms were used to clean the place, but no washing took place.

Following the suicide attack, security has been beefed up across the country. “We have asked the provincial governments to further strengthen security, especially in sensitive areas and all exit and entry points of the cities,” the interior ministry spokesman said.

Inter-Services Public Relations director-general Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said the attacks were the backlash of operations being conducted by security forces in tribal areas against militants. “But it is sad that those who save people’s life are being targeted by the terrorists.”

He said security had been tightened in and around military installations, but the incident occurred in a populated civilian area.

Rawalpindi has seen a series of suicide bombings on security forces in recent months.

A bus carrying army doctors was attacked by a suicide bomber in the RA Bazaar area on Feb 4, killing six people.

Monday’s attack was the second on the army’s medical personnel.