At least 40 people were killed and scores wounded, including senior serving and retired army officials and their children, in a suicide-cum-gun and grenades attack at a mosque in Rawalpindi at prayer time on Friday afternoon.
The attack, carried out by six or seven attackers, at least two of them suicide bombers who blew themselves up, has left Pakistan shocked.
It has highlighted the continuing capacity of militants to strike high-value targets in mainland Pakistan even as the military fights them in their traditional strongholds in the north-western tribal region. No group has yet claimed the attack.
Regional Police Officer Aslam Tareen told journalists that 40 people were killed and 83 wounded in the attack, but television channels quoted unnamed army officials saying 36 people were killed and 45 injured. Some reports said 60 people were wounded.
Some of the men who stormed the mosque were thought to have escaped from the scene and hidden in the neighbourhood of the mosque where a number of military officials live. Helicopters circled over the area as the army closed down roads and carried out combing operations over the entire afternoon.
Later reports said four attackers were killed but it remained unclear if all the attackers had been accounted for and if this number included the suicide bombers.
The tightly guarded mosque in Rawalpindi’s Parade Lane was exclusively used by military officials and their families and it was they who took the brunt of the attack.
Security in the area has been high since the 20-hour siege at the nearby Pakistan Army General Headquarters in October, but Friday’s was the second attack in the garrison city since then.
As many as 17 children were killed in the attack, including the son of the Peshawar Corps Commander. A serving Major-General, Bilal Umer, Director-General of the armoured corps, was the highest ranking serving officer killed, alongside a Brigadier, a Lieutenant-Colonel and a Major. A retired General, former vice army chief, Mohammed Yousuf, was wounded.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik described the attackers as “hired killers” and asked the country’s ulema to come forward and unanimously condemn the attack.
Until late in the evening, there was no official word on how the attack took place.
The use of the mosque is strictly regulated, and entry is by membership only and worshippers must show identity cards. The mosque is said to have a maximum of 200 members.
It is not clear how many attackers there were to begin with. Eyewitnesses estimated there were six or seven. They were wearing white shalwar-kameez with ammunition loaded belts, and they are said to have scaled the side walls of the mosque using wooden ladders and entered it through windows around 1.20 p.m. Two of them blew themselves up, one on the first floor and another on the ground floor. An eyewitness told Dawn News television that the attackers threw grenades and caught people by their hair and shot them at close range.
Grainy cellphone photographs that the television channel put out showed blood-spattered a floor and walls. A part of the mosque came down with the impact of the multiple explosions inside.