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RAWALPINDI, Dec 4 Armed militants stormed a mosque during Friday prayers in Rawalpindi's supposedly secure military residential area and killed at least 40 people, almost half of them children and five senior military officers, and wounded over eighty others before being gunned down by security forces.

In what appeared to be one of the worst incidents of terrorism in recent years, militants opposed to Pakistan army's operation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban touched a new low in their activities when they violated the sanctity of a mosque to kill and maim worshippers in cold blood.

Besides 16 children, an army major general, a brigadier, two lieutenant colonels, a major and a number of soldiers were among those killed in a multi-pronged attack at the Parade Land Askari mosque that involved grenade throwing, firing from automatic guns and deadly explosions. The siege ended after two suicide bombers blew themselves up.

Although mosques and imambargaghs have in the past been targeted by sectarian terrorists, this was the first time that such a such large number of children were gunned down by any militant group even though the apparent target were military officers offering Friday prayers in the community mosque. Most of the children were at the mosque along with their fathers or other relatives and belonged to military families, officials said.

“Like every Friday my son had accompanied me to the mosque. Now he is dead and I am standing here in front of you,” said a highly disturbed elderly man, his clothes soaked in blood.

As word spread about the terrorist attack in the city, scores of people gathered outside the Westridge area, but were prevented by military police and security personnel from going near the mosque as for many hours the situation in the area had remained volatile. It was late in the evening when authorities cleared the area and allowed the people to go in.

A military spokesman said the dead included Major General Bilal Umer, Brigadier Abdul Rauf, Lt-Col Mansoor Saeed, Lt-Col Fakhr and Major Zahid.

Several senior serving and retired military officers were also among the injured. They included a former vice chief of the army staff, Gen Muhammad Yousuf (retd) (also known as Gen Joe), a brigadier, a colonel and a couple of majors.

As anger and sadness gripped Rawalpindi and rest of the country, a top leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the brazen attack. The head of TTP's South Waziristan operations, Waliur Rehman, told the BBC that militants loyal to his organisation had carried out the attack on the mosque.

The chief military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, condemned the incident and described it as a work of anti-state terrorists whose sanctuaries have been destroyed by the military in the tribal areas.

He said the same group was now using their remaining assets in cities to terrorise the nation.

The ISPR chief told DawnNews that authorities would investigate if there was any serious breach.

Security in areas housing military installations or residences had been beefed up manifold in recent weeks, particularly after the audacious attack on the General Headquarters in October.

Resident told Dawn nearly 150 people, including women and children, were offering their prayers when a group of four militants scaled a high brick wall of the mosque by using a small ladder, landing among the worshippers.

An injured man said one of the attackers first threw hand grenades into the worshipers. A deafening boom followed. Later there were two more explosions, followed by machinegun fire.

Gunfire, mayhem

Ali, a witness, said another attacker started firing randomly into the mosque, creating mayhem among worshippers. He said he saw wounded people lying in the courtyard of the mosque. A large number of shoes dripped with blood were scattered all around in the mosque premises.

Security sources said that the group of militants who attacked the mosque had come on a car bearing Islamabad's registration, defying all security checks and they were spotted scaling the mosque's wall by some children playing in a nearby ground.

At least seven handgrenades, two national identity cards, two sports bags and some documents were found from the boot of the grey colour car the militants had used to come there.

Officials later said the dark grey colour Toyota car that militants used to travel to the Parade Lane had a fake registration plate of Islamabad, which in fact was that of a white colour car.