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Over 60 dead, mostly police, in Pakistan mosque blast

By AFP - Jan 30,2023 - Last updated at Jan 30,2023

Security officials inspect the site of a mosque blast inside the police headquarters in Peshawar on Monday (AFP photo)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Over 60 people, most of them police, were killed in a blast at a mosque inside a highly sensitive Pakistan police headquarters on Monday, prompting the government to put the country on high alert.

The attack happened during afternoon worship in the provincial capital of Peshawar, close to former tribal areas along the Afghan border where militancy has been steadily rising.

A frantic rescue mission was underway overnight at the mosque, which had an entire wall and some of its roof blown out by the possible suicide attack.

"Many policemen are buried under the rubble," said Peshawar police chief Muhammad Ijaz Khan, who estimated between 300 and 400 officers usually attended prayers.

"Efforts are being made to get them out safely," he added.

Bloodied survivors emerged limping from the wreckage, while bodies were ferried away in ambulances.

"It's an emergency situation," Muhammad Asim Khan, a spokesman for the main hospital in Peshawar, told AFP.

The death toll continued to rise as more bodies were pulled from the debris, rising to 61 killed with more than 150 wounded. 

As darkness fell, several men were still trapped in the wreckage, visible through cracks in the concrete.

"We have given them oxygen so that they don't have problems in breathing," said Bilal Ahmad Faizi, a spokesperson for the rescue organisation 1122.

At least 20 of the killed police officers were later buried after a prayer ceremony with coffins lined up in rows and draped in the Pakistani flag.

They were laid to rest with a guard of honour, a police official told AFP.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, amid a worsening security situation in the country.

The police headquarters in Peshawar is in one of the most tightly controlled areas of the city, housing intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus, and is next door to the regional secretariat.

Provinces around the country announced they were on high alert after the blast, with checkpoints ramped up and extra security forces deployed, while in the capital Islamabad snipers were deployed on buildings and at city entrance points.

“Terrorists want to create fear by targeting those who perform the duty of defending Pakistan,” said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a statement.

Officers said the blast came from the second row of worshippers, with investigators were probing the possibility of a suicide attack.

Shahid Ali, a policeman who survived, said the explosion took place seconds after the imam started prayers.

“I saw black smoke rising to the sky. I ran out to save my life,” the 47-year-old told AFP. 

“The screams of the people are still echoing in my mind.”

The drastic security breach came on the day United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had been due to visit Islamabad, although the trip was cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather.

Pakistan is also preparing to host an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation on Tuesday as it works towards unlocking a vital bailout loan to prevent a looming default.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday condemned the blast as “abhorrent” and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken extended his condolences for the “horrific attack”.

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