Deadly mosque bombing in north-west, many casualties feared

A mosque in Upper Dir province of was bombed, possibly killing up to 40 people, according to local officials. The region is part of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and close to areas where the military and Taliban fighters have clashed.


AFP - A suicide bomber ripped through a mosque packed with worshippers in northwest Pakistan Friday, killing 32 people and wounding dozens more in the deadliest such attack in more than two months.

The bomb exploded at the mosque in the remote, mountainous village of Hayagai Sharqai in Upper Dir, which borders the district of Swat where the military has focused its blistering air and ground assault against the Taliban.

Police said the bomb attack occurred during weekly Muslim prayers, which convene Friday afternoon and generally see mosques packed with worshippers.

"Thirty-two people are confirmed killed and more than 40 were wounded in a suicide blast inside the mosque," Atif-ur-Rehman, the top government official in Upper Dir, told AFP by telephone.

"We fear the death toll may rise to 45 because people are still trapped under the debris. Rescue work is under way and there are body parts scattered in the courtyard of the mosque," Rehman said.

"The suicide attacker managed to enter the mosque and was trying to get into the middle of the crowd," he added.

"Villagers, even women, came out of their homes and they're having to identify their dead relatives through their clothes."

Police official Ataullah Khan said 32 dead had been identified and put the number of wounded at 70.

"Still we are pulling out dead bodies and body parts," he said, describing the mosque as "severely damaged" in the explosion.

Bombs regularly target mosques in Pakistan, where more than 1,900 people have been killed in a wave of extremist bombings across the country since government troops besieged gunmen in a radical Islamabad mosque in July 2007.

On March 27, a suicide bomber in Jamrud, also in northwest Pakistan, killed about 50 people in one of the deadliest such mosque attacks at Friday prayers in the country.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but there has been a surge of bombings in North West Frontier Province since the military assault began in late April, heightening fears of a growing militant backlash.

On Thursday, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani announced that the battle in Swat was turning in the military's favour.

"The tide in Swat has decisively turned: major population centres and roads leading to the valley have been largely cleared of organised resistance by the terrorists," he was quoted as saying in a statement.

He said Taliban leaders were being "aggressively hunted" but that clearing remaining militant hideouts and sancturies would require limited scale operations.

The United States has strongly supported the operation, which was launched under pressure from Washington and warnings that Islamist militants posed an existential threat to the country and were plotting attacks on the West.

Three soldiers were killed and two wounded Friday when a roadside bomb struck a patrol in the lawless South Waziristan tribal area between Jandola and Spinka Raghzai, a military official said.

On Thursday, a similar bomb attack killed five policemen and an army officer near the northwest town of Mardan, an area where many of the two million people who fled Pakistan's military offensive are now sheltering in camps.

Civilians again streamed out of homes in Swat on Friday, following evacuation orders from the military and taking advantage of a curfew break ahead of possible operations concentrated in their villages, officials said.

Military helicopters dropped leaflets overnight in the villages within five kilometres (three miles) of Swat's main town Mingora, which the military said was won back from the Taliban last Saturday, officials said.

The military launched its offensive in the northwest six weeks ago after Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres of Islamabad, in violation of a deal agreed in February to put the region's three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.

The deputy and spokesman of the hardline Islamist cleric who negotiated that deal were arrested on Thursday, officials said.

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