PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – A suicide bomb tore through a Pakistani mosque during weekly prayers on Friday, killing 50 people and bringing down the roof, trapping victims under pulverised rubble.
The attack in the volatile northwest was the deadliest in the nuclear-armed country on the front line of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda in two months. Dozens of people were critically wounded and officials feared the toll could rise.
The carnage wrought havoc in Akhurwall village, part of the semi-tribal northwest area of Darra Adam Khel about 140 kilometres (90 miles) west of the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
A local official said 11 children were among the dead and television footage showed villagers digging graves within hours of the attack, determined to bury the dead in keeping with Muslim custom before nightfall.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, a local elder blamed the Taliban and suggested that the bombers could have been targeting members of a pro-government militia set up to thwart the Islamist extremists.
“The number of dead is 50 now. There is a possibility it might rise further,” local administration official Gul Jamal Khan told AFP.
“The number of wounded is more than 100. The dead include 11 children. Some of the bodies are beyond recognition.”
Shahid Ullah, district administration chief of the northwestern garrison town of Kohat, said earlier that more than 40 people had been killed, but warned that the death toll was likely to rise.
“More than 70 are wounded and most of them are in a critical condition and have been taken to hospital.”
Ambulances and private volunteers rushed to take the victims to hospital in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.
Television footage showed an elderly bearded man wearing a traditional white shalwar khamis drenched in blood limping into casualty while a woman shrieking in grief beat her hands against her head.
A private car sped up to the main Lady Reading Hospital with a volunteer sitting next to a body in the boot.
Khalid Umarzai, a regional administrator, said the bomber entered the mosque from the back during the main prayers.
“The roof of the mosque collapsed,” he told Geo television. “It was a suicide attack.”
Local tribal elder Sohbat Khan Afridi blamed the Taliban, saying Akhurwall is the home of Wali Mohammad, who formed a tribal militia in 2007 to rise up against the militants.
The Taliban and the militia, which is known locally as a lashkar, clashed repeatedly in the area but this year reached some kind of compromise in which blood money was paid to the Taliban, Afridi said.
“Taliban are believed to be involved in this attack,” he said, declining to go into further details on the alleged deal.
Umarzai suggested the attack could have been retaliation for military operations in the Darra Adam Khel area targeting Islamist militants.
“An operation is going on by the army and Frontier Corps (paramilitary) in the Darra Adam Khel area. We had been expecting such attacks.”
Around 3,800 people have been killed in suicide attacks and bombings, blamed on homegrown Taliban and other Islamist extremist networks, since government troops stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad three years ago.
The United States is holding out an offer of two billion dollars in fresh military aid to Pakistan, where it wants the military to do more to fight insurgents crossing into Afghanistan and fuelling a nine-year Taliban uprising.
Washington brands Pakistan’s northwest tribal area an Al-Qaeda headquarters, although there had been a relative lull in violence after Pakistan suffered catastrophic floods in late July that affected more than 20 million people.
Friday’s bombing was the deadliest in Pakistan since a suicide attacker slaughtered 60 people at a Shiite Muslim rally in the southwestern city of Quetta on September 3.