At least 40 killed in Pakistan attack

Pakistani army troops rush to take position near the site of the attack in Rawalpindi, 15 miles from Islamabad, the capital.
Pakistani army troops rush to take position near the site of the attack in Rawalpindi, 15 miles from Islamabad, the capital. (Anjum Naveed/associated Press)
By Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain
Saturday, December 5, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- At least 40 people were killed and scores were injured Friday when a pair of suicide bombers stormed a crowded mosque in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, joined by assailants who hurled grenades and sprayed gunfire among the worshipers.

Officials said that two attackers died when they blew themselves up during the most well-attended prayer service of the week, and that two others were killed by security forces. Police and soldiers sealed off the area and launched a major search after the attack, but the remaining assailants were still at large as of early evening.

At least 64 people were injured, officials said.

Friday's violence came just two days after President Obama emphasized the role of Pakistan in the new U.S. strategy for fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and called on the government and military here to step up efforts to eliminate havens for violent Islamist groups near the Afghan border. Pakistani officials have responded cautiously to Obama's plea, warning that the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan could further destabilize their country.

The attack on the mosque was the ninth violent assault in the past 18 months in heavily guarded Rawalpindi, 15 miles from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Seven weeks ago, attackers invaded the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, leading to a day-long siege and standoff that left 23 people dead.

A flood of attacks also has hit other major Pakistani cities, intensifying since early October, when the army launched a major operation against Taliban forces in their longtime sanctuary in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan. Nearly 500 people have been killed in dozens of incidents.

The multiple attacks on urban military and security facilities in areas once thought to be virtually impenetrable have sent a strong message of defiance and revenge against Pakistan's powerful military establishment, which once sponsored Islamist militant groups but now is fighting them aggressively.

Witnesses and officials said the Friday attack began when a man in the front row of worshipers suddenly stood and detonated explosives, blowing himself up. Immediately, several other attackers began throwing grenades and shooting from the back of the mosque, where several hundred people were praying. A second attacker blew himself up as well, officials said.

"There was thick smoke everywhere, and I felt pain in my leg. Then I saw several people throwing grenades and the guards firing back," said a driver who gave his name as Ishtiaq, adding that he was just entering the mosque when the assault began. "I saw people falling down and pools of blood everywhere. I fled to save my life."

Hussain, a special correspondent, reported from Rawalpindi.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company