( dpa ) - A suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of policemen at an anti-government rally Thursday in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, killing at least 21 officers and three civilians in the latest violence to rock a nation teetering on the brink.
The death toll could rise, however, because at least 65 people were wounded in the attack, including 16 policemen who were in critical condition at three Lahore hospitals.
The bomber, wearing a belt packed with 14 kilograms of explosives and four kilograms of ball bearings and other material that could harm people, walked to a barricade outside the High Court building at 11:45 am (0645 GMT) where dozens of riot police had gathered ahead of a scheduled rally by local lawyers, said Aftab Ahmed Cheema, senior superintendent of police in Lahore.
"As he approached, a police constable stopped him and he blew himself up," said Cheema, who said the bomber looked no more than 18- years-old.
The legs of the bombers were found at the spot while his head was found around 200 feet from the scene of the blast.
Video footage showed police caps, shoes, riot shields, helmets and batons lying in the street amid pools of blood, damaged vehicles and a dead horse that had been connected to a carriage likely passing by when the bomber struck.
The attack is yet another blow to stability in Pakistan, which is still reeling from the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto two weeks ago in a gun and suicide bomb attack in the northern city of Rawalpindi.
Tensions were already running high because of Bhutto's death, which forced the postponement of crucial parliamentary elections until February 18.
The nuclear-armed country, already beset by a 10-month political crisis, suffered at least 56 suicide bombings in 2007 that killed 741 people, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
Embattled President Pervez Musharraf has blamed Taliban and al- Qaeda militants hiding in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas along its rugged mountainous border with Afghanistan for launching the bombing campaign to destabilize his government.
The suicide attacks have mainly targeted military and police forces in the volatile North-West Frontier Province, which includes the tribal areas, where around 100,000 troops have been deployed to go after Islamic extremists.
But suicide bombings have also occurred in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, the southern port city of Karachi, killing hundreds of civilians, and now in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
There is growing skepticism of the government's claims that Islamic militants killed Bhutto, as Musharraf's popularity as is at its lowest since he, as army chief, seized power in a coup in 1999.
Bhutto's supporters have accused rogue elements within Musharraf's government or security services of killing Bhutto and are demanding an independent United Nations inquiry.
There were even rumours circulating following Thursday's attack that the bomber was actually targeting the anti-government lawyers, who have held regular demonstrations to protest Musharraf's sacking of dozens of Supreme Court and High Court judges last November. The lawyers were still inside the High Court building when the bomber struck and were unharmed.
"All these rumours are floating because people don't trust the government," said Talot Masood, a retired army general and military analyst. "The government is fast losing control over events."
The Bush administration, Musharraf's chief foreign backer, is alarmed that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are regrouping in and even expanding outside the tribal areas, and are pushing for a return to civilian leadership via free elections to restore credibility to the government. It was not the first time that a suicide bomber so brazenly targeted police in a major Pakistani city.
Days after a commando operation against Islamic militants holed up inside Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007, a bomber walked up to a group of policemen eating lunch at a small roadside restaurant and blew himself up, killing eight of them as well as seven civilians.
The country's Jihadi (holy warriors) organizations had warned the government that it would face a series of suicide attacks across the country if it stormed the Red Mosque. More than five hundred people, more than half of them the security personnel, have died in the terrorist actions since then.