PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The death toll from a massive suicide bombing Monday in a crowded mosque full of police officers climbed sharply overnight. Late Tuesday morning, police in Peshawar said the death toll had reached 85, and that they would not be able to release a final figure until search-and-rescue groups complete ongoing efforts to locate victims buried in debris from the roof.
The bombing in this northwest provincial capital, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Pakistani forces, also left 57 people hospitalized with injuries. Many others had died during the night at Lady Reading Hospital, which had originally taken in 157 wounded, and some were sent home after treatment.
The blast was initially claimed by two leaders of the Pakistani Taliban militant group known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, or TTP, but later denied by its official spokesman. It targeted the mosque during afternoon prayers inside a highly secured police compound, and most of the victims were members of police forces.
The TTP has waged war against the government for years and recently broke off a truce that had been negotiated last year. The group has a close alliance with the Afghan Taliban, now ruling Afghanistan, but operates independently.
Umar Mukarram Khorasani, a member of the TTP central leadership council, tweeted that it was “the fourth suicide attack” to avenge the death of senior TTP leader Omar Khalid Khorasani, a founder of the group who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan last August. He warned that more such revenge attacks would follow.
However, in a tweeted statement issued late Monday, Muhammad Khorasani, a spokesman for the TTP, denied any involvement in the bombing. “I would like to make it clear Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has no role in the Peshawar incident,” the statement said. “Attacking mosques, seminaries, funerals and other sacred places is against our defined rules and principles and is a punishable act.”
Although the mixed signals from different TTP leaders claiming and denying responsibility suggested a possible split within the group, the significance of the attack — especially the stunning terrorist infiltration into a high-security area — aroused immediate concerns that the collapse of the truce in November, which had been assisted by Afghan Taliban leaders in Kabul, would unleash a wave of further attacks on military targets.
The mosque was surrounded by high walls and located inside a high-security government zone with many civilian and security offices. More than 300 worshipers were inside at the time.
In a tweet late Monday, the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry in Kabul denounced the bombing and expressed condolences for the victims. It said the Afghan government “condemns attacks on worshippers in mosques,” which “contradict the teachings” of Islam.
The TTP espouses a strict vision of Sunni Islam, similar to that of the Afghan Taliban. The group has displayed signs of more aggressive and ambitious behavior since the Afghan Taliban returned to power in August 2021. The TTP has long been based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan and has been a haven for Islamist militants from both countries. Peshawar is the provincial capital.
“The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable. This is no less than an attack on Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif tweeted Monday evening after returning from Peshawar, where he and Gen. Asim Munir, the country’s new army chief, flew after the blast. Both men visited victims there at Lady Reading Hospital, where some were reported to be in critical condition.
“The nation is overwhelmed by a deep sense of grief,” Sharif said. “I have no doubt terrorism is our foremost national security challenge.”
He said the government would adopt a “comprehensive strategy” to counter the deteriorating security situation in the northwest, and stressed that the attackers “have nothing to do with Islam,” but rather seek to “create fear” by targeting the country’s defense forces. Pakistan is an Islamic republic, and more than 90 percent of its citizens are Muslim, though it also has a sizable Christian minority.
The attack immediately evoked a previous assault by TTP gunmen on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. The assault, reportedly masterminded by Omar Khalid Khorasani, left 149 people dead, most of them young students. In response, Pakistani security forces unleashed a nationwide anti-terrorist crackdown. Officials lifted a moratorium on the death penalty and executed a number of captured militants.
Police told journalists that many worshipers Monday were trapped and injured after the mosque roof collapsed on them and that rescuers had worked for hours to remove rubble in a frantic attempt to reach them. One police official said the attacker had blown himself up while pretending to pray with the other worshipers.
The attack came as Pakistan has been grappling with a number of other challenges, including widespread floods that left vast agricultural areas of the country in muddy ruins, and a dire economic and financial crisis that has led to spiraling inflation; heavy foreign debts that have brought the government dangerously close to default; and a sharp devaluation of the national currency.
In recent years, domestic militant violence — once a national scourge that killed thousands of civilians and security forces — had waned considerably after repeated military offensives in the rugged tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. The TTP, which once carried out hundreds of attacks, had been weakened, with its leaders killed and its sanctuaries overrun.
But the area has remained vulnerable to militant activities on both sides, and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has further complicated matters. Pakistan first accused Kabul of offering sanctuary to the TTP, but Taliban leaders denied this and instead encouraged the now-failed peace talks.
“Pakistan was hopeful it could reach a peace deal after the Taliban took control of Kabul, but the situation became worse instead,” Ashraf Ali, a security analyst in Pakistan, told The Washington Post late Monday. “The security situation has become a serious challenge to the government.”
Ali said that the Pakistani militants had been inspired by the Taliban takeover in Kabul to try gaining control over the border regions inside Pakistan. The peace talks, he said, essentially backfired by giving the TTP a chance to reorganize and acquire new weapons, which Pakistani security forces in the areas did not have. Now, he said, he fears the recent “surge in militant attacks” will continue.
Constable reported from Kabul. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.