At least 50 people were killed Friday in a suicide bombing at a Pakistan mosque, police said, in an attack apparently aimed at one of the country's leading opponents of Islamist militants.
|Map of Pakistan locating the area of a suicide attack at a mosque Friday, according to police (Photo: AFP)|
The bomber blew himself up in a crowded mosque at the residential compound of Aftab Sherpao, a close ally of President Pervez Musharraf who as interior minister was the top civilian anti-terrorism official until last month.
Sherpao was reportedly unhurt in the attack, which hit as the mosque was crowded with Muslim faithful celebrating the first day of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The carnage raised the specter of a bloody run-up to controversial national elections on January 8, with Musharraf -- a pivotal figure in the US-led "war on terror" -- battling to contain Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
"At least 50 people have been killed and dozens were injured in the attack," district police chief Feroz Shah told AFP. "I fear the death toll may rise further."
It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since October, when twin suicide bombers killed 139 people at a parade in honor of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Friday's powerful blast ripped the limbs off worshippers and spattered the mosque's interior with blood and pieces of flesh, said an AFP photographer on the scene in the town of Charshadda in Pakistan's restive northwest.
"The bomber was among the people, who were offering Eid prayers," said provincial police chief Muhammad Sharif Virk. "He was standing in the second row behind the former interior minister."
It was not immediately known how the blast missed Sherpao, who as interior minister commanded the country's paramilitary forces and was in effect the public face of the government's fight against Islamist militants.
"Naturally, Aftab Sherpao was the target," his spokesman Salim Shah told AFP. Officials said one of his sons was wounded and taken to hospital.
Musharraf dissolved his cabinet in November, which cost Sherpao the ministry, and appointed a caretaker government ahead of the January elections for parliament.
Until then, however, he was the leading civilian in the government campaign to clamp down on the militant attacks that have threatened to destabilize this nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 160 million people.
Sherpao was slightly wounded in an April suicide bombing, just after delivering a speech at a public rally.
More than 750 people have been killed in militant attacks this year -- and more than half of those since July, when the army raided a radical, pro-Taliban mosque in the capital Islamabad, killing 100 people.
Friday's suicide attack was the fourth to hit Pakistan since just last Friday, a day before Musharraf lifted a controversial state of emergency.
Musharraf cited the threat of Islamist violence when he imposed emergency rule on November 3. But in a speech to the nation after he lifted the emergency last Saturday, he said the threat had been contained.
"The wave of terrorism and militancy has been stopped under the emergency and there has been considerable improvement in the overall situation," Musharraf said.