Peshawar: Two Taliban suicide bombers struck a historic church here on Sunday, killing 83 people, including women and children, in the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in Pakistan`s history.
About 130 others were injured in the attack on All Saints Church at Kohati Gate area of Peshawar. The first bomber set off his suicide vest as people were emerging from Sunday mass. The second bomber struck within a gap of 30 seconds, said city Commissioner Sahibzada Muhammad Anis.
Over 30 women and at least seven children were among the 83 people killed, officials told the media. The dead included a Muslim policeman who was guarding the church.
The Jandullah group, a faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge US drone strikes.
Jandullah spokesman Ahmed Marwat told Newsweek: "Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue to strike wherever we find an opportunity against non-Muslims."
The group had earlier claimed responsibility for killing 10 foreign climbers in Gilgit-Baltistan and for an attack on an Inter-Services Intelligence compound in Sukkur.
Anis said some 600 to 700 people were inside the church at the time of the attack. People soaked in blood wailed for help as bodies lay strewn in the church`s courtyard.
The walls of the church were pitted by ball bearings packed into the suicide vests. Police officials said each vest contained an estimated six kilograms of explosives. Nearby buildings were also damaged by the blasts.
Bomb Disposal Squad chief Shafqat Mahmood said the heads of the bombers had been recovered and sent for forensic analysis. They will be used to prepare sketches, he said.
This was the worst attack in Pakistan`s history on the Christian minority, which has not been targeted as frequently as other minorities like Shias or Ahmadis.
The brazen attack sparked protests by Christians across the country. In Peshawar, angry Christians blocked several roads with bodies of the dead and burning tyres. They burned police uniforms too.
Christians also staged a protest at Lady Reading Hospital, where most of the victims were taken. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who left for New York to attend the UN General Assembly, strongly condemned the attack on the church, saying "terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam".
Sharif said such cruel acts of terrorism "reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists". He expressed solidarity with Christians.
Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party rules Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak visited the injured at Lady Reading Hospital.
The All Saints Church is one of the oldest in northwest Pakistan and was built in 1883 during the British era. The Kohati Gate area in Peshawar`s old quarter has witnessed several militant attacks in recent years though none of them targeted Christians.
The congested Kohati Gate neighbourhood is usually packed with people, mostly women, as the area has several markets and shopping centres. Many Christians live in the vicinity and visit the church in large numbers for Sunday service.
The worshippers were leaving for a distribution of free food outside the church when the bombers struck. Rescue teams rushed to site and security forces cordoned off the area.
Officials of Lady Reading Hospital described the condition of 13 injured people as critical. Army officials said 11 people were taken to a military hospital so that they could be provided the best emergency treatment.
Awami National Party leader and former provincial minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain visited the site of the attack and expressed his sympathies to the Christian community.
The Council for International Religion called for three days of mourning and said all missionary schools and colleges in Peshawar would be closed during this period.
The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government and the ANP too announced three days of mourning to express solidarity with Christians.