By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -A suicide bombing at a Shi’ite Muslim mosque during Friday prayers in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar killed at least 56 people and injured nearly 200, police and hospital officials said.
An armed man who arrived near the mosque on a motorcycle opened fire when he was stopped by police, before forcing his way into a crowded hall and detonated his suicide vest, senior police official Haroon Rasheed said.
The attacker first shot at the police guards at the mosque’s entrance, killing one of them, he said. “The armed man entered the mosque and started firing on the worshippers and finally blew himself up,” Rasheed added.
Previously the police had said they were two men on the motorcycle.
The attack is one of the deadliest in years on Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority, which has long been targeted by Sunni Muslim Islamist militants, including Islamic State and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani Taliban denied involvement, and no other group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
At least 56 people were killed and 194 were injured, many of whom were in critical condition, officials at the nearby Lady Reading Hospital said.
Sardar Hussain, who lost three relatives in the blast, said the mosque was the only place of worship for the Shi’ite community in Peshawar’s old city.
Attacks by Islamist insurgents had become an almost daily occurrence in Pakistan until the military launched a crackdown on militants in 2014.
Worshippers at the mosque in Peshawar had gathered for Friday prayers, when congregations are usually the largest.
“Panic spread among the worshippers when the firing started. I ran to save my life,” one man, who did not give his name, told Reuters at the hospital, where he was being treated for his injuries.
“Suddenly a man came in and started firing… He shot many people (and) then closed his eyes and blew himself up. After that, I have no idea what happened,” he said.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the bombing, according to his office.
The attack comes as the Australian cricket team are touring Pakistan for the first time in over two decades and staying in Islamabad, 140 kilometres (87 miles) from Peshawar.
Pakistan recently started hosting international teams again after security concerns forced them to shift many of their high profile international events to the UAE.
Following the blast, the Australian cricket coach Andrew McDonald said the team touring Pakistan will be guided by security experts.