PESHAWAR: A suicide blast at a mosque inside a Pakistan police headquarters was a targeted revenge attack, a police chief said Tuesday, as rescue efforts ended with the death toll standing at 100. Between 300 and 400 policemen had gathered for afternoon prayers at the compound’s mosque on Monday in the provincial capital Peshawar when an entire wall and most of the roof were blown out, showering rubble on officers.
“We are on the frontline taking action against militants and that is why we were targeted,” city police chief Muhammad Ijaz Khan told AFP. “The purpose was to demoralize us as a force.” On Tuesday evening rescuers finally ended a marathon operation which saw them pry survivors and corpses out of the wreck of the mosque, rushing those who could be saved to hospitals.
The head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province police force, Moazzam Jah Ansari, told reporters that a suicide bomber had entered the mosque as a guest, carrying 10-12 kg of “explosive material in bits and pieces”. He added that a militant group that was on-and-off affiliated with the Pakistani Taleban could be behind the attack.
Authorities are investigating how a major security breach could happen in one of the most tightly controlled areas of the city, housing intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus, and next door to the regional secretariat. The nation is already being hobbled by a massive economic downturn and political chaos, ahead of elections due by October.
Interior minister Rana Sanaullah told Pakistan’s national assembly the dead included 97 police officers and three civilians, with 27 patients still in critical condition. “I remained trapped under the rubble with a dead body over me for seven hours. I had lost all hope of survival,” Wajahat Ali, a 23-year-old police constable whose feet were broken, told AFP from hospital on Tuesday. Survivor Shahid Ali 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 police officer told AFP.
Dozens of slain police officers have already been buried in several mass prayer ceremonies, with coffins lined up in rows and draped in the Pakistani flag while a guard of honor was performed. “Terrorists want to create fear by targeting those who perform the duty of defending Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said in a statement.
In a statement, the Pakistani Taleban – separate from the Afghan Taleban but with a similar ideology – denied it was responsible for the latest blast. Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, it carried out a years-long wave of horrific violence after emerging in 2007 but recently has attempted to rebrand itself as a less brutal outfit, claiming not to target places of worship.
Meanwhile, 49 children died when their overloaded boat capsized in northwest Pakistan, police said Tuesday after divers spent three days dragging bodies from freezing waters. The boys aged between seven and 14 were all students of a madrassa and had been taken for a day trip to the scenic Tanda Dam lake on Sunday.
“The water of the dam was freezing due to cold weather that impeded the rescue mission. But today the divers were able to dive deep to recover the remaining bodies,” said Khateer Ahmad, a senior official with Rescue 1122. The bodies of a teacher and one skipper were also pulled from the water, he added, bringing the death toll to 51.
Muhammad Umar, who sells tea at a picnic site overlooking the popular weekend tourist destination, said dozens of parents and relatives had gathered over the past few days. “Every time a body was recovered from the scene, they would jump onto the diver to see if it was their son and every time we would hear them screaming in pain and anguish,” he told AFP over the phone on Tuesday. “I have not witnessed such scenes in my life, it’s something that can’t be explained in words.”
Tanda Dam lake is about five kilometers away from the madrassa – an Islamic school that offers free religious education – in Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Police spokesperson Fazal Naeem issued the new death toll on Tuesday after the end of the rescue mission. It was confirmed by the military’s media wing. “The boat was overloaded; its capacity was around 20 to 25 persons,” Naeem told AFP. He added that five people were rescued including four students and one teacher.
Pakistan’s army shared images showing divers traversing the lake in rubber dinghies, entering the green waters to pull out the bodies of children. “I got stuck under the boat,” 11-year-old survivor Muhammad Mustafa told AFP from his hospital bed on Sunday. “My shawl and sweater weighed me down, so I took them off.” “The water was extremely cold and my body went numb. I thought I was going to pass out when a man on an inflatable tube saved me.” – AFP