PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide bomber struck a crowded mosque inside a police compound in Pakistan on Monday, causing the roof to collapse and killing at least 59 people and wounding more than 150 others, officials said.
Most of the casualties were police officers. It was not clear how the bomber was able to slip into the walled compound, which houses the police headquarters in the northwestern city of Peshawar and is itself located in a high-security zone with other government buildings.
“The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable. This is no less than an attack on Pakistan,” tweeted Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who visited the wounded in Peshawar and vowed “stern action” against those behind the bombing. He expressed his condolences to families of the victims, saying their pain “cannot be described in words.”
Police said between 300 to 350 worshippers were inside the mosque when the bomber detonated his explosives.
The bombing drew nationwide condemnation from opposition political parties and government officials.
Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter.
Pakistan, which is mostly Sunni Muslim, has seen a surge in militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their cease-fire with government forces. Monday’s assault on a Sunni mosque was one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent years.
The police compound is located in a high-security zone in Peshawar, along with several government buildings, and it was unclear how the bomber managed to penetrate so deep inside the zone unnoticed.
More than 300 worshippers were praying in the mosque, with more approaching, when the bomber set off his explosives vest. Many were injured when the roof came down, according to Zafar Khan, a police officer, and rescuers had to remove mounds of debris to reach worshippers still trapped under the rubble.
Meena Gul, who was in the mosque when the bomb went off, said he doesn’t know how he survived unhurt. The 38-year-old police officer said he heard cries and screams after the blast.
Police official Siddique Khan said the death toll had risen to at least 47, while more than 150 people were wounded. He said the bomber blew himself up while among the worshippers.
A nearby hospital listed many of the wounded in critical condition, raising fears the death toll could rise.
A survivor, 38-year-old police officer Meena Gul, said he was inside the mosque when the bomb went off. He said he doesn’t know how he survived unhurt. He could hear cries and screams after the bomb exploded, Gul said.
Rescuers scrambled trying to remove mounds of debris from the mosque grounds and get to worshippers still trapped under the rubble, police said.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif in a statement condemned the bombing and ordered authorities to ensure the best possible medical treatment for the victims. He also vowed “stern action” against those who were behind the attack.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan also condemned the bombing, calling it a “terrorist suicide attack” in a Twitter post. “My prayers & condolences go to victims' families,” said the ex-premier. “It is imperative we improve our intelligence gathering & properly equip our police forces to combat the growing threat of terrorism.”
Peshawar has been the scene of frequent militant attacks. The Pakistani Taliban are separate from but closely allied with the Afghan Taliban, who seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021 as U.S. and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.
The TTP has waged an insurgency in Pakistan over the past 15 years, fighting for stricter enforcement of Islamic laws in the country, the release of their members who are in government custody and a reduction of the Pakistani military presence in the country’s former tribal regions.
Pakistan has witnessed a surge in militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their cease-fire with government forces.
The truce ended as Pakistan was still contending with last summer’s unprecedented flooding that killed 1,739 people, destroyed more than 2 million homes, and at one point submerged as much as one third of the country. The flood damages totaled more than $30 billion and authorities are now, months later, still struggling to arrange tents, shelter and food for the survivors.
Cash-strapped Pakistan is currently also facing one of the worst economic crises and is seeking a crucial installment of $1.1 billion from the International Monetary Fund — part of its $6 billion bailout package — to avoid default. Talks with the IMF on reviving the bailout have stalled in recent months.
Sharif’s government came to power last April after Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Khan has since campaigned for early elections, claiming his ouster was illegal and part of a plot backed by the United States. Washington and Sharif have dismissed Khan’s claims.