A suicide attacker detonated a bomb packed with ball bearings and nails amid hundreds of holiday worshippers Friday at the residential compound of Pakistan’s former interior minister, killing at least 50 people and wounding over 100, authorities said.
It was the second suicide attack in eight months to apparently target Aftab Khan Sherpao, who is running in upcoming parliamentary elections. But although election-related violence is common in Pakistan, suspicion over the bombing will likely focus on the pro-Taliban or al-Qaida militants active in the northwestern region of the country where the attack occurred.
The attack, which came during the Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha, created a scene of carnage at the mosque at the politician’s compound in Sherpao, a village 25 miles northeast of the city of Peshawar.
Bloodied clothes, hats, shoes and pieces of flesh were strewn about the building. Witnesses said the dead included police officers guarding Sherpao, who was praying in the mosque’s front row at the time of the attack but not injured.
'Scene from Doomsday'
“We were saying prayers when this huge explosion occurred,” said Shaukat Ali, a 26-year-old survivor whose white cloak and pants were torn and spattered with blood. “It almost blew out our ear drums. Then it was it was like a scene from Doomsday.”
The bomber was praying in a row of worshippers when he detonated the explosive, provincial police chief Sharif Virk said. Hundreds of people were in or around the mosque, about 40 yards from Sherpao’s house, witnesses said.
District mayor Farman Ali Khan said between 50 and 55 people were killed. Local police chief Feroz Shah said over 100 were wounded.
The hospital scene in Peshawar was chaotic as the injured arrived in pickup trucks, ambulance sirens wailed and the wounded screamed for help. The injured were also taken to hospitals in Charsadda and Tangi.
The bomb contained 13-17 pounds of explosives and was filled with nails and ball bearings to maximize casualties, said the head of the bomb unit at the scene, who declined to give his name.
Shafiq Khan, a witness who went to the scene after the blast, said Sherpao’s youngest son, Mustafa, was slightly wounded, while another son, former provincial assembly member Sikander Sherpao, was not hurt. After the blast, Sherpao’s house was protected by about a dozen armed police and paramilitary troops.
In a brief telephone interview with The Associated Press, Sherpao said he was unhurt.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said.
Sherpao was interior minister — Pakistan’s top civilian security official — in the administration recently dissolved ahead of January parliamentary elections. He is head of the Pakistan Peoples Party-Sherpao, and is running as a candidate for parliament in next month’s elections.
In April, Sherpao was slightly wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a rally for his political party in the nearby town of Charsadda, killing at least 28 people.
Islamic militants have repeatedly targeted top figures in the government of President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror.
Musharraf himself narrowly escaped assassination in two bombings a few days apart in December 2003 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. At least 16 others died.
Fighters extending influence
Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have extended their influence over tracts of Pakistan’s volatile northwest in the past two years and in recent months have launched numerous suicide attacks, usually targeting security forces and their families.
The army says the most recent attacks could be retaliation for a military operation against militants in the Swat valley, where it claims to have killed about 300 militants since last month.
Meanwhile, Pakistani police rearrested a prominent opposition lawyer Friday, despite promises he would be allowed to remain free for three days to celebrate the holy day, his son said.
Aitzaz Ahsan was picked up before dawn as he traveled on the road from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad, his son Ali Aitzaz said.
“He has been put under house arrest again,” he said from the family home in Lahore.
Aitzaz Ahsan was at the forefront of protests demanding Musharraf reinstate the Supreme Court’s top judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and other independent-minded justices that he sacked under a state of emergency he imposed.