Image: Troops search close to the site of suicide attack
Anjum Naveed  /  AP
Troops search close to the site of suicide attack in Rawalpindi on Friday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/4/2009 12:03:44 PM ET 2009-12-04T17:03:44

Militants stormed a mosque near Pakistan's army headquarters, killing at least 36 people, including six military officers and 17 children, during Friday prayers as they sprayed gunfire and threw grenades before blowing themselves up, officials said.

It was the latest in a wave of strikes by suspected Islamist insurgents that has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan since October.

The Associated Press put the death toll at 36. Reuters, meanwhile, reported that said 40 had been killed in the incident, noting that it was not clear if that figure included attackers.

The rampage in a heavily fortified area in the garrison city of Rawalpindi brought the war home to the military brass as insurgents persist with brazen attacks despite several army offensives against them in northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan.

A military statement said four attackers hurled grenades, then opened fire as they rushed toward the mosque, which was located on Parade Lane in a military residential colony, just a few miles from the capital. Two suicide bombers then blew themselves up inside, while the other two militants were killed in an exchange of gunfire, it said.

The dead included a major general, a brigadier, two lieutenant colonels, one major and a retired major as well as three regular soldiers, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. Seventeen children and 10 civilians also were killed.

City residents said access to the mosque was mostly restricted to soldiers and their families.

'Killing people like animals'
Witnesses said two of the militants entered the mosque, which had up to 200 worshippers inside, while others ran into buildings nearby. With reporters prevented from getting close, security forces exchanged fire with the assailants for an hour before they blew themselves up or killing them. Video: Dozens die in attack on Pakistan mosque

Nasir Ali Sheikh saw the attackers at the mosque as he walked there to pray. He said they were dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing of loose pants and a long tunic and carried hand grenades, automatic weapons and ammunition belts slung around their shoulders.

"They were killing people like animals," he said. "I couldn't understand what was happening."

The mosque's walls and prayer mats were covered in blood and shattered glass lined the floor, TV footage showed.

The attack in what should be one of the most secure areas of Pakistan was the latest challenge by militants against the writ of the state. A local television station said people were executed in cold blood.

"There are children among them who had come to pray with their fathers. There are also elderly, retired security officials," said military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas.

"We have reports of some security officials killed or injured but we are confirming that." He said an army major-general was killed.

Strikes on Rawalpindi
The attack was the third in Rawalpindi in the last two months. In the most high-profile incident, a team of militants attacked the army headquarters on Oct. 10 and held dozens hostage in a 22-hour standoff that left nine militants and 14 other people dead.

Three helicopters hovered overhead while trucks carrying commando teams and ambulances raced through the cordoned-off area as soldiers with rifles ready kept onlookers and traffic away.

The attack began when several gunmen staged an explosion to break through a checkpoint close to the mosque, said Yasir Nawaz, a police official at the scene.

He said the installation included an army parade ground as well as the mosque, which was often used by military officers.

Abbas said authorities were investigating how the attackers penetrated the stringent security ring surrounding the area.

It was the second attack against a military installation this week. A suicide bomber also struck the entrance of the navy headquarters in Islamabad, killing two security guards on Wednesday.

Violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has escalated since the army launched an offensive in mid-October against Taliban militants in the northwestern tribal area of South Waziristan near the Afghan border. Soldiers have pushed deep into what was a militant stronghold, but many insurgents appear to have fled.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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