Suicide bomber kills 48 during prayers at Pakistani mosque
Saturday, March 28, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A suicide bomber blew up a packed mosque near the Afghan border at the climax of a Friday prayer service, killing 48 people and wounding scores more in the worst attack to hit Pakistan this year.
Islamic militants were suspected in the blast in the Khyber pass, apparently to avenge recent military operations in the area aimed at protecting the major supply route for NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, authorities said. The route passes in front of the mosque.
Several security officers were killed in the attack, which came hours before President Obama unveiled a revised strategy to "disrupt, defeat and dismantle" the al-Qaida terrorist organization and the Taliban militants operating in Afghanistan and in northwest Pakistan.
Afghan and Pakistani officials praised Obama's emphasis on civilian aid to their countries, saying it would be an effective way to deal with the growing violence from Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
The bomber sneaked into the mosque and detonated his explosives during the hourlong service, which observant Muslims around the world attend around noon on Fridays, witnesses said.
"As the prayer leader said 'God is great,' the bomb went off with a big bang," said Nadir Shah, a paramilitary soldier who was treated for head wounds in the nearby city of Peshawar. "I felt it was the end of everything. Sometime later when I opened my eyes, I was lying among dead bodies."
The powerful blast collapsed most of the two-story whitewashed building. Scores of residents and police dug frantically with their hands through the bricks and wood for survivors, but mostly they pulled out bloody, dusty corpses.
With anguished women waiting nearby, police displayed blood-spattered prayer caps and sandals for relatives to examine to see if they belonged to their loved ones.
Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan have often killed scores of Pakistani civilians in attacks. Mosques and funerals have been targeted before, but Friday's blast struck many as plumbing new depths of evil.
"What kind of holy war is this? Only poor people have been killed," said Asfandyar Wali, the head of the ruling secular party in the northwest. "This is not about implementing Islamic law, this is not about holy war. This is outright insurgency."
Khan Zaib, a 30-year-old father of six, stopped at the mosque on his way home from a business meeting.
"It was like doomsday," said Zaib, wounded on the head and hands. "I saw body parts flying in the air. I saw blood everywhere."
Tariq Hayat, the top administrator of the Khyber tribal region, said 48 bodies were found in the rubble, and he predicted the death toll would likely rise. More than 100 people were wounded, medical officials said.
Pakistan has been hit by scores of attacks by al-Qaida and Taliban militants since the Muslim country withdrew its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and supported the U.S.-led invasion of that country.
Until Friday, the deadliest recent attack was in September when a suicide truck bomb killed at least 54 people and devastated the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital.
The militants are mostly sheltering in the border region, which Western officials say they use as a base to attack U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, where violence is also running at all time highs. The lawless, mountainous region is believed to be a possible hideout for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The mosque sat in a rocky valley near the town of Jamrud, on the main road along which scores of containers carry fuel, vehicles, food and other vital supplies to the expanding U.S.-led force in Afghanistan.
Suspected Taliban militants have attacked both trucks and transport depots along the route in recent months, destroying scores of military vehicles and raising doubts about the reliability of the supply line.
In response, authorities have launched several offensives against the insurgents, something tribal leader Hayat speculated was the reason for the mosque attack.
"Residents of this area had cooperated and helped us a lot (in the offensives). These infidels had warned that they will take revenge," he said. "They are the enemy of Pakistan. They are the enemy of Islam."
The area has also been beset by feuds between rival tribal and militant groups -- some loosely allied with the government, others close to the Taliban -- which have included suicide bombings and attacks on mosques.
Frustrated at Pakistan's failure to gain control of the border belt, the U.S. has carried out an intense campaign of missile strikes in the region since last year.
President Asif Ali Zardari reiterated Pakistan's opposition to the strikes, apparently carried out by unmanned CIA aircraft. The government says the attacks feed anti-American feeling and undermine its own effort to isolate extremists.
"We hope Obama is a name for change," Zardari told reporters in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Zardari praised Obama's plan to give his country $1.5 billion in civilian aid annually to try to improve people's lives and counter the influence of Islamic militants, said the state news agency.
Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada also praised Obama's focus on increasing civilian aid to both countries.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Obama's plan to strengthen Afghanistan's security forces by providing an additional 4,000 troops to train its army and police would benefit both his country and the region.
Weary of rising violence inside their own borders, Pakistani authorities have struck peace deals in some Taliban-dominated areas, an approach Western officials complain lets militants step up the war in Afghanistan.
Three key Taliban commanders in Pakistan recently announced a new alliance to fight "infidels" led by "Obama, Zardari and (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai."
The commanders -- Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Nazir -- are based in the North and South Waziristan regions, the main focus of the U.S. missile strikes. The three are divided on tribal lines and have feuded in the past.
Their statement last month didn't say where the Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen, or Union of Holy Warriors, would focus its efforts, but The New York Times reported Friday that Taliban fighters had agreed to focus on fighting the extra U.S. troops destined for Afghanistan in the coming months.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Sebastian Abbot in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.