Peshawar: A bomb exploded in a mosque in a Pakistani tribal region as hundreds were gathered for prayers on Friday, killing at least 40 people and wounding 85 others in the first major attack in the country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The attack came despite a period of relative calm in Pakistan, which has suffered numerous Taliban-led insurgent attacks in recent years. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the Taliban and other Islamist militants have previously attacked mosques.
The bomb went off in Ghundi, a village in the Khyber tribal region, a part of Pakistan`s tribal belt. Khyber has long been a base for Islamist militants, and the Pakistani army has waged multiple operations aimed at pacifying the region but with limited success.
Khyber also is a key region for the US and NATO, because a large portion of non-lethal supplies heading to US forces in Afghanistan passes through it.
Some 300 people had gathered for prayers Friday afternoon in the Sunni mosque, and many were on their way out when the bomb exploded, local administrator Iqbal Khan said. Officials said there was some evidence a suicide attacker was involved.
Saleem Khan, 21, said people panicked after the blast, and that amid the smoke, cries and blood, several ran over him when he fell.
"Whoever did it in the holy month of Ramadan cannot be a Muslim," he said from a hospital bed in the main northwest city of Peshawar. "It is the cruelest thing any Muslim would do."
TV footage from the scene showed a heavily damaged building. Prayer caps, shoes and green prayer mats were scattered across a blood-splattered floor, while ceiling fans were twisted and walls blackened. Men comforted a young boy who wept as he held his hand to his heart.
At least 40 people were killed, and 85 wounded, local administrator Fazal Khan said.
Islamist militants such as the Pakistani Taliban have targeted mosques before, especially if they believe alleged enemies — such as army soldiers — are using the facility.
The Pakistani Taliban and affiliated groups are staging attacks in Pakistan because they oppose Islamabad`s alliance with the United States.
Also Friday, two US missiles struck a house in a tribal region that was once a Pakistani Taliban stronghold, killing four people, intelligence officials said.
The missile strike came as Pakistani-US relations are seriously strained after the unilateral American raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in northwest Pakistan. The continued missile strikes, which Pakistan officially opposed suggests Washington considers the tactic too valuable to give up.
Though Pakistan objects to the covert, CIA-run missile program, it is believed to have aided it in the past. The US rarely acknowledges the program.
The two missiles hit a house Friday in Sheen Warsak village in the South Waziristan tribal area, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The identities of the dead were not immediately clear. Although US officials insist the vast majority of victims in the strikes are militants, Pakistanis and some human rights activists have said civilians are often caught up in the attacks.
South Waziristan is a lawless stretch of rugged territory that was largely under the control of the Pakistani Taliban until October 2009, when the country`s army launched an operation against the insurgents. However, militant activity is still occasionally reported in the region.
It is nearly impossible to independently verify the information from the region because access is heavily restricted.