Bombing Kills at Least 52 at a Religious Gathering in Pakistan

By John Mercury September 30, 2023

At least 52 people were killed on Friday in what officials said they believed was a suicide attack at a religious gathering in southwestern Pakistan, the latest sign of the country’s deteriorating security situation.

The blast occurred around midday in Mastung, a district in Balochistan Province. It targeted a procession of hundreds of people who had gathered for Eid Milad un-Nabi, a holiday celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

The death toll was confirmed by Abdul Rasheed Shahi, Mastung’s district health officer. He said at least 50 more people had been wounded.

“Due to the power of the explosion, several people gathered there died instantly, and many others suffered injuries,” said Javed Lehri, a local police officer.

“We are investigating, but it seems it was a suicide attack,” he added.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the blast, officials said. Among the victims was a police officer.

The blast was the latest attack to unnerve Pakistan, where militant groups have become more active over the past two years after finding a haven in neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban administration.

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, attacks by extremist groups in Pakistan have become more frequent and more deadly, analysts say, rattling a country that is also battling dual economic and political crises.

The attack in Mastung was among the most brazen spectacles of militant violence this year. In July, a suicide bombing at a political rally killed 54 people in northwestern Pakistan. In February, attackers carried out an hourslong assault on the police headquarters in Karachi, a major port city. In January, a mosque bombing killed more than 100 people in Peshawar.

Each attack sent a heart-wrenching reminder to Pakistanis across the country: A new wave of militant violence has arrived.

“Today’s incident in Mastung constitutes a major security failure,” said Abdul Basit, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who covers extremism and militancy in South Asia.

It is “a clear manifestation of how Pakistan’s internal security has become intertwined with developments in Afghanistan,” he added.

The attack began after hundreds of people from across the district gathered for the religious celebration on Friday, which was declared a public holiday in Pakistan, as it is in several other Muslim countries.

An initial investigation of the attack found that a suicide bomber had tried to force his way to the front of the religious procession, according to Jan Achakzai, the provincial information minister of Baluchistan. When a police official intervened and tried to stop him, the bomber detonated his explosives.

“After the powerful explosion, I was numbed for a few seconds,” said Shafi Muhammad, a Mastung resident who was part of the procession. “I had never seen such carnage before in my life,” he added.

Videos circulating on social media after the blast showed hundreds of people gathered around bodies splayed across pools of blood. One video showed two men navigating through a pile of bodies until they found someone who was wounded, streaks of red splashed across his blue salwar kameez — the traditional tunic and loosefitting pants. As they picked him up by the arms and carried him away, more bodies became visible beneath him.

Officials declared a state of emergency in all regional hospitals, they said, as rescue teams tried to recover people who were hurt and get them medical attention. Critically injured people were being transferred to the provincial capital, Quetta, about 20 miles away, according to Mr. Achakzai.

The devastating blast in Mastung was one of multiple reminders on Friday alone of the return of militant violence to Pakistan.

Around 500 miles away, in a northwestern stretch of the country, a separate attack killed at least five people and injured about a dozen more, officials said. The attack — in the Hangu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that borders Afghanistan — began when a man in an explosive-laden car approached the gate of a police station and was killed by an officer, according to Nisar Ahmed, the district police officer.

Moments later nearby, a second blast ripped through a mosque where about 40 people had gathered for Friday Prayer. The mosque’s roof collapsed, trapping dozens of people inside, Mr. Ahmed added. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Around the same time, the Pakistani military announced that it had thwarted an attempt by militants to infiltrate Pakistani territory near the Afghan border in Balochistan. Three militants and four Pakistani soldiers were killed in the clash, according to a statement by Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces.

The blasts and clash added to the growing unease about the recent surge in militant violence, much of which has been carried out by the Pakistani Taliban — a militant group with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that opposes the Pakistani government — and by the Islamic State affiliate in the region.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the Pakistani Taliban denied any involvement in the suicide blasts. Officials and analysts suspect the attack in Mastung might have been orchestrated by the Islamic State affiliate, which has been behind previous attacks in the district — an area rife with violence involving militant groups that have aligned with the Islamic State in recent years.

“These groups have been responsible for a series of attacks, targeting Hazara Shia pilgrims en route to Iran for religious pilgrimages as well as political rallies,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

For many observers, the possibility of another Islamic State-linked attack in Mastung highlighted how entrenched the group had become in Balochistan, a stretch of mountain and desert that is blessed with natural resources but remains one of the country’s poorest provinces.

While the area has long struggled with violence from local Baluch separatist groups that have fought against political centralization, it has only recently become a nascent stronghold for Islamic State fighters, analysts said.

The attack also called attention to how the Taliban’s brutal campaign cracking down on the Islamic State in Afghanistan has pushed some fighters into Pakistan, further eroding the country’s security as it inches toward elections that are expected to happen early next year, according to Mr. Basit, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“To stay relevant and to dispel the impression of the group’s weakness, it is hitting soft targets like politicians and religious gatherings,” he said. “As a result, unfortunately violence is likely to increase and conflict is expected to expand further in the coming weeks and months.”

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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