By Rizwan Mohammed and Karin Brulliard
Saturday, May 29, 2010; A10
LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- Militants staged coordinated attacks in this eastern city Friday on two mosques of a minority Muslim sect, taking hostages and killing at least 80 people.
The attacks, which began minutes apart, targeted places of worship belonging to the Ahmadi sect, each of which was packed with at least 1,500 people, according to Ahmadi representatives in the United States. At least seven men armed with grenades, high-powered rifles and suicide vests stormed the mosques as Friday prayers ended.
A group identifying itself as the Punjab provincial chapter of the Pakistani Taliban, an amorphous Sunni Muslim organization based in the country's mountainous tribal regions, asserted responsibility for the attack, according to the Geo television network. The Taliban has carried out bombings across Pakistan over the past three years, increasingly allying with like-minded groups in the country's heartland.
Friday's attacks, which wounded at least 78 people, demonstrated the continued ability of the Taliban and its associates to strike forcefully in urban centers and pointed to rising sectarian tensions in Sunni-majority Pakistan.
Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim, but Pakistani law does not recognize them as such. Sunni conservatives have led a recent campaign to ostracize them, and Sunni extremists have made Ahmadis, as well as Shiites, the target of violence. But neither minority sect has previously been the target of a large-scale, coordinated assault.
At one mosque, in the elite neighborhood of Model Town, four gunmen opened fire and tossed grenades at security and police guards, then at worshipers. At least 19 people were killed before police regained control, said Sajjad Bhutta, the deputy commissioner of Lahore.
Near the city's main railway station in the district of Garhi Shahu, a team of about three men besieged another mosque, taking several hundred people hostage. A standoff ensued as police and fighters exchanged gunfire. The militants then detonated explosives, killing scores, Bhutta said.
"When the gunmen entered the premises firing, the imam said aloud, 'Everyone on the ground!' " said Luqman, 27, a shopkeeper who declined to give his full name. "I ran out, along with 25 to 30 people, as the gunmen sprayed bullets on us from behind. Many fell. I was lucky."
An estimated 2 million to 5 million Ahmadis live in Pakistan. They believe their founder was a savior sent by God, an idea considered blasphemous under Pakistani law and anti-Muslim to many fundamentalist Islamists. That makes the Ahmadis a valid target in the eyes of radicals.
On Thursday night, unidentified gunmen ambushed and killed three Ahmadi businessmen in Faisalabad, an industrial city about 100 miles west of Lahore. Faisalabad Police Chief Sadiq Dogar said it appeared to be a sectarian slaying.
Elsewhere in Pakistan on Friday, a suspected U.S. drone-fired missile struck a Taliban compound in the South Waziristan tribal area, killing eight, according to two officials in the region.
Mohammed is a special correspondent. Brulliard reported from Kabul.