• Lone attacker gunned down one guard, wounded another before detonating suicide vest inside prayer hall
• Islamic State group claims responsibility
PESHAWAR: At least 57 worshippers lost their lives and 194 others were injured when a suicide attacker detonated himself inside a Shia mosque in the Koocha Risaldar area of Peshawar’s old city neighbourhood on Friday, rescue and police personnel said.
The Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) confirmed the death toll and injuries in the attack. LRH spokesperson Muhammad Asim said 10 of the injured were in critical condition, while nine of the bodies were charred beyond recognition.
KP police chief Moazzam Jah Ansari said the lone attacker, who was on foot, first killed one of the police guards and then wounded the other before entering the mosque’s hall, some 25 yards away, where he detonated the explosives attached to his body in the third row of worshippers.
Police and witnesses said a man dressed in a black shalwar qameez shot the guards manning the main gate located at some distance from Jamia Masjid Koocha Risaldar, and then entered the mosque where he blew himself up amongst nearly 150 worshippers, who had congregated for Friday prayers.
Jamil Khan, one of the policemen standing guard at the gate, was gunned down while his colleague was injured in the subsequent blast.
“The attack took place just when people were preparing for the main Friday congregation,” Mr Jah added. He said police forensic teams recovered 150 ball bearings from the hall.
“At least six kilogrammes of explosives were used in the attack,” he claimed, adding there was no threat alert for February and March.
The blast turned the densely packed hall of the mosque into a mess with blood and pieces of flesh strewn all over, and the ceiling fans into mangled pieces of iron. The heavy metal grill covering the windows also came off and the walls developed cracks.
The stench of blood and burnt explosives lingered in the air for several hours after the attack. Hundreds of shoes could be seen scattered around covered in blood and dust in the narrow alley outside the mosque.
Police cordoned off the mosque, while rescue workers rushed the bodies and the wounded to the nearby LRH.
Koocha Risaldar, a largely Shia neighbourhood in the old city, has witnessed many sectarian attacks in the past as well.
Yawar, an eyewitness, told Dawn the attacker first opened fire on policemen and then ran inside the mosque while firing with a pistol. His father was also at the gate and narrowly escaped the gunfire. A huge explosion followed soon afterwards that jolted the neighbourhood, as the narrow streets echoed with cries of the injured.
A youth in blood-stained clothes told Dawn he lost four cousins in the blast.
Shayan Haider, another witness, had been preparing to enter the mosque when the blast threw him into the street. “I opened my eyes and there was dust and bodies everywhere,” he told AP.
At the Lady Reading Hospital’s emergency department, there was chaos as doctors struggled to move the many wounded into operating theatres. Hundreds of relatives gathered outside the emergency department, many of them wailing and beating their chests, pleading for information about their loved ones.
Retired army officer Sher Ali who had been inside the mosque at the time of the explosion was injured by flying shrapnel. In white clothes splattered with blood, he made an impassioned plea to the government for better protection of the country’s Shia population. “What is our sin? What have we done? Aren’t we citizens of this country?” Ali told AP.
CCTV footage showed a man in black shalwar qameez approaching the police guards, pulling out a gun and opening fire on them. He is then seen running inside the mosque after which a thick plume of smoke and dust cover the streets with several people seen fleeing the spot.
Late on Friday night, AFP reported that the militant Islamic State group had claimed the suicide bombing in Peshawar.
“Today ... an Islamic State fighter succeeded in assaulting a Shia mosque in Peshawar,” the group said on its Amaq propaganda site.
Even before the claim came to light, security officials were of the view that the attack bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group’s Khorasan chapter.
“We see the IS-K as the biggest threat, more than the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan,” Mr Ansari, the Peshawar inspector general of police, said.
The IS-K is based in Afghanistan, but security officials say the anti-Shia terrorist group appeared to have shifted focus to Pakistan after coming under intense pressure from the Afghan Taliban.
Friday’s attack was the biggest terrorist activity in the city.
Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2022