ISLAMABAD (AP) — Gunmen killed eight people in an attack Monday on a Pakistani army camp in a city where hard-line Islamists stopped on their way to the capital to protest the decision to reopen the NATO supply line to Afghanistan, police said.
Police were searching for the attackers, and it was unclear if any of the Islamist protesters were involved, said Basharat Mahmood, police chief in the eastern city of Gujrat where the attack occurred.
"It is surely a terrorist attack," said Mahmood. "The attackers could have taken cover. They could have hid themselves among the protesters."
The camp on the outskirts of Gujrat was attacked at around 5:20 a.m., a little less than an hour after the leaders of the Difah-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan, protest movement finished delivering speeches inside the city, said the police.
The group, which includes hard-line Islamist politicians and religious leaders, left the city of Lahore on Sunday along with 8,000 supporters in 200 vehicles to make the 300-kilometer (185-mile) journey to Islamabad. They traveled about halfway, spent the night in Gujrat and then began marching toward Islamabad, planning to hold a rally in front of parliament late Monday.
The roughly half dozen gunmen who attacked the camp were riding in a car and on motorcycles. They killed seven soldiers at the camp and a policeman who tried to intercept them as they were escaping, said Mahmood. Four policemen and at least three soldiers were wounded, he said.
The Pakistani Taliban, took responsibility for the attack on the soldiers. A Taliban spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, made the claim to The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. He warned of more such attacks in the future.
The Pakistani Taliban is an umbrella organization created to represent roughly 40 insurgent groups in the tribal belt plus al-Qaida-linked groups headquartered in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province.
The camp that was attacked was set up to look for the body of an army major who was flying a helicopter when it crashed into a river in the area, said the police.
The leaders of Difah-e-Pakistan include people with known militant links, including Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, and Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the father of the Taliban.
They are not known to be supporters of the Pakistani Taliban, who have waged a bloody insurgency against the state over the past few years and killed thousands of soldiers and police.
Many of the Difah-e-Pakistan leaders have strong historical links with Pakistani intelligence, and the group is widely believed to have been supported by the army to put pressure on the U.S. while the government negotiated over the NATO supply line.
Pakistan closed the route in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The government finally agreed to reopen the supply line last week after the U.S. apologized for the deaths.
One of the reasons Pakistan waited so long to allow NATO troop supplies to resume was that it was worried about domestic backlash in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant.
Difah-e-Pakistan leaders said Sunday that they were holding their "long march" to Islamabad to prevent Pakistan from becoming a slave to the U.S. and to show that many citizens are unhappy with the decision to reopen the route.
The number of protesters has been relatively small so far given Pakistan's population of 190 million, and the demonstration is unlikely to have any effect on the government's decision.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Zarrar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.