The death toll from a bombing at a mosque in north-western Pakistan has risen to more than 90, officials said on Tuesday. At least 170 people were injured in the attack on a Sunni mosque inside a major police facility in Peshawar, which was one of the deadliest on Pakistani security forces in recent years. Some 300 worshippers were praying in the mosque, with more approaching, when the bomber set off his explosives vest on Monday morning. The blast ripped through the building, killing and injuring dozens of people and also blowing off part of the roof. What was left of the roof then caved in, injuring many more, according to police officer Zafar Khan.
Rescuers had to remove mounds of debris to reach worshippers still trapped under the rubble. More bodies were retrieved overnight and early on Tuesday, according to Mohammad Asim, a government hospital spokesman in Peshawar, and several of those critically injured died. ‘Most of them were policemen,’ he said of the victims. Chief rescue official Bilal Faizi said rescue teams were still working at the site on Tuesday as more people are believed to be trapped inside. Mourners were burying the victims at different graveyards in the city and elsewhere.
It was not clear how the bomber was able to slip into the walled compound in a high-security zone with other government buildings and get to the mosque — an indication of a major security lapse. An investigation will show ‘how the terrorist entered the mosque’ said Ghulam Ali, the provincial governor in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is the capital. ‘Yes, it was a security lapse,’ he added. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited a hospital in Peshawar after the bombing and vowed ‘stern action’ against those behind the attack. ‘The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable. This is no less than an attack on Pakistan,’ he tweeted. He expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, saying their pain ‘cannot be described in words.’ Authorities have not determined who was behind the bombing.
Shortly after the explosion, Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban — also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP — claimed responsibility for the attack in a post on Twitter. But hours later, TTP spokesman Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it is not its policy to target mosques, seminaries and religious places, adding that those taking part in such acts could face punitive action under TTP’s policy. His statement did not address why a TTP commander had claimed responsibility for the bombing. Pakistan, which is mostly Sunni Muslim, has seen a surge in militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their ceasefire with government forces.
Earlier this month, the group claimed one of its members shot and killed two intelligence officers, including the director of the counter-terrorism wing of the country’s military-based spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Security officials said on Monday that the gunman had been traced and killed in a shootout in the north-west, near the Afghan border. The TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban. It has waged an insurgency in Pakistan in the past 15 years, seeking stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province it has long used as its base. The Pakistani Taliban are the dominant militant group in the province, and Peshawar has been the scene of frequent attacks.
The Pakistani government’s truce with the TTP ended as the country was still contending with unprecedented flooding last summer that killed 1,739 people, destroyed more than two million homes, and at one point submerged as much as a third of the country. The Taliban-run Afghan Foreign Ministry said it was ‘saddened to learn that numerous people lost their lives’ in Peshawar and condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on a visit to the Middle East, tweeted his condolences, saying the bombing in Peshawar was a ‘horrific attack.’ ‘Terrorism for any reason at any place is indefensible,’ he added.
Condemnation also came from the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, as well as the U.S. Embassy, which said the ‘United States stands with Pakistan in condemning all forms of terrorism.’ UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the bombing ‘particularly abhorrent’ for targeting a place of worship, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Cash-strapped Pakistan faces a severe economic crisis and is seeking a crucial installment of 1.1 billion U.S. dollars (£888.5 million) from the International Monetary Fund — part of its six billion dollar (£4.9 billion) bailout package — to avoid default. Talks with the IMF on reviving the bailout have stalled in the past months. Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan also expressed his condolences, calling the bombing a ‘terrorist-[death] attack.’
Mr Sharif’s government came to power in April after Mr Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Mr Khan has since campaigned for early elections, claiming his ousting was illegal and part of a plot backed by the U.S., but Washington and Mr Sharif have dismissed his claims. Peshawar police chief Muhammad Ijaz Khan estimated between 300 and 400 officers usually attended prayers at the mosque. After the blast, survivors emerged limping from the wreckage, while bodies were ferried away in ambulances as the rescue operation continued. Witnesses described chaotic scenes as the police and the rescuers scrambled to rush the wounded to hospitals. Security officials said the bomber was sitting in the front row of the mosque as people lined up to pray. It is not clear how the attacker was able to slip into the walled compound, which houses the northwestern city of Peshawar’s police headquarters and is itself located in a high-security zone with other government buildings.
Provincial governor Haji Ghulam Ali said on Monday that rescue workers did not know exactly how many people remained trapped under the rubble. Local police officer Zafar Khan said several of the wounded were listed in critical condition at a hospital and there were fears the death toll would rise. Riaz Mahsud, a senior local government official, said: ‘We cut three main beams of the building and efforts are underway to cut the remaining one.’ A survivor, 38-year-old police officer Meena Gul, said he was inside the mosque when the bomb went off. He said he doesn’t know how he survived unhurt. He could hear cries and screams after the bomb exploded, Gul said. Shahid Ali, a policeman who survived, said the explosion took place seconds after the imam started prayers. ‘I saw black smoke rising to the sky. I ran out to save my life,’ the 47-year-old said.
‘The screams of the people are still echoing in my mind,’ he added. ‘People were screaming for help.’ The attacker appeared to have passed through several barricades manned by security forces to get into the ‘Red Zone’ compound that houses police and counter-terrorism offices in the volatile northwestern city of Peshawar, police said. ‘It was a [Death] bombing,’ Peshawar Police Chief Ijaz Khan told Reuters. Many of the 170 wounded people were in critical condition, he said. The bombing happened a day before an International Monetary Fund mission to Islamabad to initiate talks on unlocking funding for the South Asian country’s economy, which is enduring a balance of payments crisis.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif condemned the bombing and ordered authorities to ensure the best possible medical treatment for the victims. He also vowed ‘stern action’ against those who were behind the attack. ‘The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable,’ Sharif said. ‘This is no less than an attack on Pakistan. The nation is overwhelmed by a deep sense of grief. I have no doubt terrorism is our foremost national security challenge.’ Pictured: A police officer, who was injured in a blast at a Mosque, is helped by worshippers to a hospital in Peshawar in the wake of the attack.
The Prime Minister appealed for members of his own party to donate blood to help survivors. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan also condemned the bombing, calling it a ‘terrorist-[death] attack’ in a tweet online. Khan wrote: ‘My prayers & condolences go to victims families. It is imperative we improve our intelligence gathering & properly equip our police forces to combat the growing threat of terrorism.’
Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. Peshawar is the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan and has been the scene of frequent militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their cease-fire with government forces. This was one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent years. Last April, a mosque in Imam Saheb was the target of another bombing, which killed dozens in Sunni Mawlawi Sekandar Mosque. Pictured: A man mourns for a dead relative.
In the capital, Islamabad Police issued a security high-alert and said security at all entry and exit points to the city had been increased. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The militant group, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, has waged an insurgency in Pakistan over the past 15 years.
It seeks the stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of their members who are in government custody and a reduction in the Pakistani military presence in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that it has longed used as its base. The group is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, who seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops pulled out of the country after 20 years of war.
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