By RIAZ KHAN
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The death toll from a suicide bombing in northwestern Pakistan rose to 88 on Tuesday. The attack, on a Sunni mosque inside a major police facility, was one of the deadliest targeting Pakistani security forces in recent years.
More than 300 worshippers were praying in the mosque in the city of Peshawar, with more approaching, when the bomber set off his explosives vest on Monday morning, officials said. The blast ripped through the mosque, killing and injuring scores, and blowing off part of the roof.
What was left of the roof then caved in, injuring many more, according to Zafar Khan, a police officer. Rescuers had to remove mounds of debris to reach worshippers still trapped under the rubble.
More bodies were retrieved overnight and early Tuesday, according to Mohammad Asim, a government hospital spokesman in Peshawar, and several of those critically injured died. “Most of them were policemen,” Asim said of the victims. The bombing also wounded more than 150 people.
Bilal Faizi, the chief rescue official, said rescue teams were still working Tuesday at the site as more people are believed trapped inside. Mourners were burying the victim at different graveyards in the city and elsewhere.
It was not clear how the bomber was able to reach the mosque, which is in a walled compound, in a high security zone with other government buildings.
The investigation will show “how the terrorist entered the mosque,” said Ghulam Ali, the provincial governor in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which 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.
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 spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it was 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 a cease-fire with government forces, as the country was contending with unprecedented floods that killed 1,739 people, destroyed more than 2 million homes, and at one point submerged as much as a third of the country.
The Pakistani Taliban are the dominant militant group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and Peshawar has been the scene of frequent attacks. But the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a regional affiliation of the Islamic State group and a rival of the Taliban, has also been behind deadly attacks in Pakistan in recent years. Overall, violence has increased since the Afghan Taliban seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021, as U.S. and NATO troops pulled out of the country after 20 years of war.
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 the Pakistani military presence in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province it has long used as its base.
Earlier this month, the Pakistani Taliban claimed one of its members shot and killed two intelligence officers, including the director of the counterterrorism wing of the country’s military-based spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Security officials said Monday the gunman was traced and killed in a shootout in the northwest, near the Afghan border. In 2014, a Pakistani Taliban faction attacked an army-run school in Peshawar and killed 154, mostly schoolchildren.
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 said.
Pakistan is also contending with political and economic crises in the wake of the floods and a disputed election.
Condemnations also came from the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, as well as the U.S. Embassy, which said that the “United States stands with Pakistan in condemning all forms of terrorism.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the bombing “particularly abhorrent” for targeting a place of worship, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also expressed his condolences, calling the bombing a “terrorist suicide attack.”
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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