ISLAMABAD — Suspected Islamist militants attacked two mosques packed with hundreds of worshippers from a minority sect in eastern Pakistan on Friday, holding hostages and battling police, officials and witnesses said. Some 80 people died, and dozens were wounded in the worst attack ever against the Ahmadi sect.
The assaults in Lahore were carried out by at least seven men, including three suicide bombers, officials said. Two attackers were captured. At one point, a gunman fired bullets from atop a minaret.
It was one of the first times militants have deployed gun and suicide squads and taken hostages in a coordinated attack on a religious minority in Pakistan. Shiite Muslims have borne the brunt of individual suicide bombings and targeted killings for years, though Christians and Ahmadis also have faced violence.
The long-standing threat to minorities in this Muslim-majority, U.S.-allied nation has been exacerbated as the Sunni extremist Taliban and al-Qaida movements have spread.
Ahmadis are reviled as heretics by mainstream Muslims for their belief that their sect’s founder was a savior foretold by the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The group has experienced years of state-sanctioned discrimination and occasional attacks by radical Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, but never before in such a large and coordinated fashion.
Worshippers sprayed with bullets
The attacks Friday took place in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu neighborhoods of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and one of its politically and militarily most important.
The assault at Model Town was relatively brief, and involved four attackers spraying worshippers with bullets before exploding hand grenades, said Sajjad Bhutta, Lahore’s deputy commissioner.
Several kilometers away at Garhi Shahu, the standoff lasted around four hours.
TV footage showed an attacker atop a minaret of the mosque at one point in the siege, firing an assault rifle and throwing hand grenades. Outside, police traded bullets with the gunmen, an Associated Press reporter saw.
Luqman Ahmad, 36, was sitting and waiting for prayers to start when he heard gunshots and then an explosion. He quickly lay down and closed his eyes.
“It was like a war going on around me. The cries I heard sent chills down my spine,” Ahmad said. “I kept on praying that may God save me from this hell.”
After police commandos announced the attackers had died, he stood to see bodies and blood everywhere.
“I cannot understand what logic these terrorists have by attacking worshippers, and harmless people like us,” he said.
Bhutta said at least three attackers held several people hostage inside the Garhi Shahu mosque. The three wore jackets filled with ammunition. “They fought the police for some time, but on seeing they were being defeated they exploded themselves,” he said.
Around 80 people were killed in the two attacks, while more than 80 were wounded, Bhutta said. A breakdown for each location was not immediately available.
Two attackers were caught, and one was being treated for wounds, Punjab province police chief Tariq Saleem Dogar said.
An initial investigation found that one detained suspect was from southern Punjab but had studied at a religious school in the port city of Karachi, Punjab’s law minister said.
Video: Gunmen kill scores at Pakistani mosques Before the attack, the suspect stayed at a center belonging to Tableeghi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary group, Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said. The group has occasionally drawn attention in connection with international terror investigations, but says that it is not violent.
Geo TV reported that the Punjab province branch of the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility, however, such attacks often spur unverifiable claims of responsibility from various groups.
The province’s top executive, chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, appealed for calm.
“We, our security forces will fight this menace till the end,” he said. “Attacks on places of worship is barbarianism. It is a shame to cause bloodshed in mosques.”
Muslim leaders have accused Ahmadis of defying the basic tenet of Islam that says Muhammad was the final prophet, but Ahmadis argue their leader was the savior rather than a prophet.
Under pressure from hard-liners, the Pakistani government in the 1970s declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. They are prohibited from calling themselves Muslims or engaging in Muslim practices such as reciting Islamic prayers.
A U.S.-based Ahmadi spokesman, Waseem Sayed, said the sect abhors violence and was deeply concerned about the attacks. He estimated Pakistan, a country of 180 million, had around 5 million Ahmadis.
Worldwide he estimated there were tens of millions of Ahmadis, but said that they have faced the most violence in Pakistan, and that this was the worst attack in the history of the sect.
“We are a peaceful people and monitoring the situation and hoping and praying that the authorities are able to take all necessary action to bring the situation to normalcy with the least number of casualties,” Sayed said via e-mail.
Also Friday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed 11 alleged militants and wounded three others in the Nazai Narai area of South Waziristan tribal region, two intelligence officials said.
The exact identities of the dead were not immediately clear, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media on the record.
The U.S. does not publicly acknowledge the missile program. Pakistani publicly protests the strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but is widely believed to secretly aid the attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida targets.
Pakistan has staged military operations against Taliban militants in its tribal regions, which stretch along the Afghan border and have long had little government influence.
Army fighter planes destroyed at least 10 suspected militant hideouts and one dozen vehicles in the Orakzai tribal region on Friday, killing at least 80 insurgents, administration official Samiullah Khan said,
Information from the tribal areas is nearly impossible to verify independently, because the areas are remote, dangerous and entry to them is largely restricted.
In Pakistan’s southwest Baluchistan province Friday, gunmen on a motorcycle killed four police officers in Quetta city.
One of the slain officers had helped arrest militants from the banned Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, senior police official Naveed Ahmed said. But Ahmed did not blame any group for the attack, saying the investigation was continuing.
NBC New, msnbc.com staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.