At least 46 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in a suicide bombing carried out by the Pakistan Taliban at a mosque in the city of Peshawar, as the security situation in the country continues to deteriorate.
The blast struck as 200 worshippers were praying in the mosque, located in the Police Lines area of the city where the police headquarters and counter-terrorism officers are based. Most of those inside the mosque were thought to be officers.
The impact of the explosion collapsed the roof and one wall of the mosque and injured many people, said Zafar Khan, a local police officer. Witnesses said the blast took place in the main hall just as afternoon prayers were about to begin and worshippers were packed tightly inside. According to officials, the bomber had been standing in the front row.
The Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), took responsibility for the attack, claiming it was revenge for a fighter killed in Afghanistan last year.
The TTP have stepped up attacks in the region since November after a ceasefire with the government broke down, with recent blasts targeting military and police. The TTP, which is believed to be close to al-Qaida, has waged an insurgency in Pakistan for the past 15 years, fighting for stricter enforcement of Islamic laws and the release of jailed members.
Rescuers at the scene scrambled to pull worshippers trapped beneath mounds of debris from the fallen roof. Khan said several of the wounded were in a critical condition at a hospital and there were fears the death toll would rise.
Khan said between 300 and 400 police officers were in the area when the blast took place and the bomber had penetrated multiple layers of security to enter the mosque. “It is apparent that a security lapse occurred,” he told reporters.
Meena Gul, a police officer, said he was inside the mosque when the bomb went off and could hear cries and screams after the explosion.
The Pakistani prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, called it a “suicide attack” and ordered authorities to ensure the best possible medical treatment to the survivors. “Terrorists want to create fear by targeting those who perform the duty of defending Pakistan,” he said in a statement.
The former prime minister Imran Khan said better intelligence gathering and security for police forces was needed to “combat the growing threat of terrorism”.
Though the TTP are a militant group separate from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s ascension to power in Kabul has been seen to empower the group in neighbouring Pakistan, especially in the border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They have been responsible for a number of deadly attacks in the past, including an attack on army headquarters in 2009 and the 2008 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad.
TTP attacks have been escalating in recent months. In January, a group of Taliban militants attacked a police station in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in December dozens of Taliban detainees overpowered their guards at a counter-terrorism centre in the Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, took hostages and seized control of the facility for more than 24 hours.
Peshawar has been the target of frequent militant attacks and suicide bombings. In March 2022, 56 worshippers were killed in a blast at a Shia mosque in the city, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.
Following the bombing, security was beefed up in other big cities including Islamabad, where security at all entry and exit points of the capital city was increased and snipers were deployed at “important points and buildings”.