The death toll from a suspected suicide bomb that ripped through a mosque at a police compound in northwestern Pakistan Monday has risen to at least 88, as the Pakistani Taliban gave conflicting claims of responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks in the country in years.
Mohammad Asim Khan, spokesperson from the Lady Reading Hospital in the city of Peshawar, on Tuesday confirmed the fatalities and said about another 50 blast victims were being treated for injuries.
Meanwhile, hope was fading in the search for survivors as rescue workers sifted through the debris and rubble of the mosque that was all but destroyed Monday, as worshipers, mainly law enforcement officials, gathered for evening prayers.
“We are not expecting anyone alive to be found. Mostly dead bodies are being recovered,” said Bilal Faizi, a rescue spokesperson.
Nasarullah Khan, a police official who survived the explosion, said he remembered seeing “a huge burst of flames” before becoming surrounded by a plume of black dust.
Khan said his foot broke in the blast and he was stuck in the rubble for three hours.
“The ceiling fell in… the space in between the ceiling and wall is where I managed to survive,” he said.
The blast Monday is the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in Peshawar, capital of the restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan and the site of frequent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP).
The TTP is a US-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Last year, the breakdown of an already shaky year-long ceasefire between the TTP and Pakistan’s government threatened not only escalating violence in that country but potentially an increase in cross-border tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
Initially on Monday, TTP officials Sarbakaf Mohmand and Omar Mukaram Khurasani had claimed the blast was “revenge” for the death of TTP militant Khalid Khorasani last year.
But the TTP’s main spokesperson later denied the group was involved in the attack.
“Regarding the Peshawar incident, we consider it necessary to clarify that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has nothing to do with this incident,” TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani said in a statement late Monday. “According to our laws and general constitution, any action in mosques, madrasas, funeral grounds and other sacred places is an offense.”
Pakistan authorities say an investigation is underway and have not confirmed either claim.
On Monday, Peshawar Police Chief Mohammad Aijaz Khan said the blast inside the Police Lines Mosque was “probably a suicide attack,” echoing a statement from Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
“The brutal killing of Muslims prostrating before Allah is against the teachings of the Quran,” Sharif said, adding that “targeting the House of Allah is proof that the attackers have nothing to do with Islam.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also condemned the attack in a statement Monday.
“Ill-equipped law enforcement personnel continue to be targeted in incidents that dearly cost civilian and police lives. We demand the state take action now,” it said.