Bomb attack kills at least 52 people at religious gathering in Pakistan | ET REALITY

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At least 52 people were killed on Friday in what authorities said they believed was a suicide attack on a religious gathering in southwestern Pakistan, the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in the country.

The explosion occurred around noon in Mastung, a district in Balochistan province. Their target was a procession of hundreds of people who had gathered for Eid Milad un-Nabi, a holiday celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

The death toll was confirmed by Abdul Rasheed Shahi, Mastung district health officer. He said at least 50 more people had been injured.

“Due to the power of the explosion, several people gathered there were killed instantly and many others sustained injuries,” said Javed Lehri, a local police officer.

“We are investigating, but it appears that it was a suicide attack,” he added.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the explosion, officials said. Among the victims was a police officer.

The blast was the latest attack to unnerve Pakistan, where militant groups have become more active in the past two years after finding refuge in neighboring Afghanistan under Taliban administration.

Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in August 2021, attacks by extremist groups in Pakistan have become more frequent and deadlier, analysts say, shaking a country also struggling with a dual economic and political crisis. .

The attack in Mastung was one of the most brazen displays of militant violence this year. In July, a suicide bomb attack at a political rally killed 54 people in northwestern Pakistan. In February, attackers carried out an hour-long assault on police headquarters in Karachi, a major port city. In January, a mosque bombing killed more than 100 people in Peshawar.

Each attack sent a heartbreaking reminder to Pakistanis across the country: a new wave of militant violence has arrived.

“Today’s incident in Mastung constitutes a major security failure,” said Abdul Basit, a senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who covers extremism and militancy in South Asia.

It is “a clear manifestation of how Pakistan’s internal security has become intertwined with events in Afghanistan,” he added.

The attack began after hundreds of people from across the district gathered for the religious celebration on Friday, which was declared a public holiday in Pakistan, as it is in several other Muslim countries.

An initial investigation into the attack found that a suicide bomber had attempted to force his way to the front of the religious procession, according to Jan Achakzai, Balochistan’s provincial information minister. When a police officer intervened and attempted to arrest him, the attacker detonated his explosives.

“After the powerful explosion, I was numb for a few seconds,” said Shafi Muhammad, a Mastung resident who was part of the procession. “I have never seen such a massacre before in my life,” he added.

Videos circulating on social media after the explosion showed hundreds of people gathered around bodies strewn in pools of blood. One video showed two men wading through a pile of bodies until they found someone who was wounded, with red stripes splashed across his blue salwar kameez, traditional tunic and baggy pants. As they grabbed him by the arms and led him away, more bodies became visible beneath him.

Authorities declared a state of emergency at all regional hospitals, they said, as rescue teams attempted to recover injured people and provide them with medical care. According to Achakzai, the seriously injured people were being transported to the provincial capital, Quetta, about 20 miles away.

The devastating explosion in Mastung was one of many reminders Friday of the return of militant violence to Pakistan.

About 500 miles away, in an area in the northwest of the country, another attack killed at least five people and wounded a dozen more, authorities said. The attack, in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province bordering Afghanistan, began when a man in a car packed with explosives approached the door of a police station and was killed by an officer, according to Nisar Ahmed, the police officer. from District. .

Moments later, nearby, a second explosion leveled a mosque where about 40 people had gathered for Friday prayers. The roof of the mosque collapsed, trapping dozens of people inside, Ahmed added. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Around the same time, the Pakistani military announced that it had thwarted an attempt by militants to infiltrate Pakistani territory near the Afghan border in Balochistan. Three militants and four Pakistani soldiers were killed in the clash, according to a statement from Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

The explosions and clashes added to growing concern over a recent surge in militant violence, much of which has been carried out by the Pakistani Taliban – a militant group with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that opposes the government. Pakistani – and by the Islamic State. affiliated in the region.

In a statement issued on Friday afternoon, the Pakistani Taliban denied any involvement in the suicide bombings. Officials and analysts suspect that the attack in Mastung could have been orchestrated by the Islamic State affiliate, which has been behind previous attacks in the district, an area plagued by violence involving militant groups that have aligned themselves with the Islamic State in the last years.

“These groups have been responsible for a series of attacks, targeting Hazara Shiite pilgrims heading to Iran for religious pilgrimages and political demonstrations,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

For many observers, the possibility of another Islamic State-linked attack in Mastung highlighted how entrenched the group had become in Balochistan, a stretch of mountain and desert that is blessed with natural resources but remains one of the poorest provinces in the world. country.

While the area has long struggled with violence from local Baloch separatist groups that have fought political centralization, it has only recently become a budding stronghold for Islamic State fighters, analysts said.

The attack also drew attention to how the Taliban’s brutal campaign against the Islamic State in Afghanistan has driven some fighters into Pakistan, further eroding the country’s security as elections approach, expected early next year. , according to Basit. , from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“To remain relevant and dispel the impression of weakness of the group, it is attacking soft targets such as politicians and religious gatherings,” he said. “As a result, violence is unfortunately likely to increase and the conflict is expected to expand further in the coming weeks and months.”

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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