50 Killed by Bomb in Pakistan Mosque
Parliamentary Candidate, Thought to Be Target, Unhurt in Holiday Strike

By Imtiaz Ali
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 22, 2007

CHARSADDA, Pakistan, Dec. 21 -- At least 50 people were killed and more than 200 injured Friday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a mosque on the holy day of Eid al-Adha in a remote town in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

The attack was apparently aimed at former interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, who was among those offering special Eid prayers in his home town, about 40 miles from the provincial capital of Peshawar.

Sherpao survived the attack, though one of his sons was injured. Sherpao is a candidate in Jan. 8 parliamentary elections and heads a splinter group of the Pakistan People's Party, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

A police official called the bombing an "inhuman act of terrorism." Police said more than 1,000 people were in the mosque, the main one in the town, for Eid prayers when the blast occurred in the eighth row.

Sherpao also was the target of a bombing in April that killed more than 30 people and injured more than 50. This time, police said, there was a metal detector at the mosque entrance and extra security in place because of threats on Sherpao's life.

"It was like a terrible explosion in the middle rows of the mosque, and then there was only smoke and cries of the people," said Mohmmad Irshad, who was praying in the mosque's last row.

"It was so sudden and so shocking that nobody knew what happened," Irshad said. "I personally saw dozens of dead bodies and injured lying on the ground when the initial dust of the explosion settled down."

Residents said the town, also named Sherpao, was devastated by the loss of life.

"We had bought sacrificial animals for the Eid day celebration and would go for our sacrifices after the prayer, but we didn't know that there would be a human bloodshed in our village instead of animal blood," said Abdul Khaliq, 38.

"There is hardly a home today in our village where there is no dead body or injured," said Khaliq, whose uncle and four cousins died in the blast.

The town and others nearby had mass funerals Friday afternoon.

Eid vacations had left hospitals thinly staffed, and the flood of the dying and injured presented a severe challenge for them.

"We have just nominal staff, and it's impossible to cope with such a big carnage today," said Qaisar Khan, an official in the district headquarters hospital at Charsadda, the main town of the area.

"Many of the injured are critical, and they may lose their lives on the way to other hospitals. But we can't do anything because it's Eid day here and all the staffers have gone to their ancestral towns for the celebration of Eid, and it's hard to call them on such a short notice."

Sherpao is considered an ally of President Pervez Musharraf. As interior minister, he ran military operations against al-Qaeda and tribal militants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has experienced a wave of suicide attacks recently, mostly in North-West Frontier Province and the volatile tribal belt. More than 600 people have lost their lives in the bombings. Officials blame pro-Taliban militants and al-Qaeda remnants in the tribal areas.

Denunciations of the mosque bombing came from people of all political persuasions, but Islamic parties held Musharraf responsible for the wave of attacks.

"It's such a sad day to see the bloodshed of innocent people on this holy day in a sacred place like a mosque," said Maulana Siraj-ul-Haq, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is boycotting the election out of concern that it will be rigged.

"Obviously, it's all because of the wrong policies of the president, Pervez Musharraf, who has brought the U.S. war to our home, and now this war is spreading by leaps and bounds in this whole Frontier Province and other parts of Pakistan," Haq said.

An Oct. 18 suicide attack in Karachi targeted Bhutto as she was launching her political comeback, after eight years in exile. The bombing killed at least 140 people. Now the suicide attack on Sherpao, a little more than two weeks before the parliamentary vote, presents a serious obstacle to the already lackluster electioneering in the country.

"This latest wave of suicide attacks has totally changed our political culture and our electioneering. Nobody can take the risk of addressing a big public gathering," said Rahim Dad Khan, provincial chief of the Pakistan People's Party.

"After this attack in a mosque, now people would hardly come to the political processions and other public gatherings as part of our election campaign because of the fear of the suicide attacks," Khan said.

He added that it is the government's responsibility to provide security to politicians as well as to the public in advance of the voting as part of holding fair and free elections.

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