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Id prayers turn bloody, ex-minister Sherpao escapes unhurt
54 die in Pak suicide attack

Islamabad, December 21
At least 54 people were killed and over 100 injured today when a suicide bomber blew himself up during Id prayers in a packed mosque in north-western Pakistan in a bid to target former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who escaped unhurt.

About 1,000 people were present in the Jama Masjid at Sherpao village in Charsadda district when the attacker detonated his bomb killing 54 people, the police said adding the toll could rise.

They said the bomber managed to enter the mosque with almost five to six kg of explosives even though a metal detector had been installed at the entrance.

“I was attending the Id-ul-Azha prayers with my sons and nephews when the blast took place,” said Sherpao, who in April also survived a suicide attack in the same area in the North-West Frontier Province.

Sherpao and his son Sikander escaped without injuries but his another son Mustafa and a nephew were wounded.

Charsadda district police chief Feroz Shah told reporters that at least 54 people had died. Three security personnel were among the dead.

President Pervez Musharraf strongly condemned the attack and said “No Muslim could even think of committing such a heinous crime that takes the lives of a large number of innocent faithful who had gathered for Id prayers”.

Musharraf said a handful of extremists were bent on forcing their ‘distorted thinking’ on the majority of moderate and practicing Muslims, and this was ‘totally unacceptable’.

The fight against extremism and terrorism would not be deterred by such incidents and the perpetrators of such crimes will be “Pursued relentlessly and eliminated”, he said. Witnesses said Sherpao and his kin were in the first row of the worshippers while the suicide bomber was in the second row. Body parts, shoes and slippers and bloody caps lay scattered all over the floor of the mosque.

Authorities sounded a nationwide red alert. Though law enforcement agencies were already on alert for Id, the interior ministry asked all four provinces to further step up security.

Interior secretary Syed Kamal Shah said the bomber’s target was Sherpao and his family. He said a joint investigation team would probe the blast.

The seriously injured among over 100 wounded in the blast were taken to hospitals in the provincial capital Peshawar as facilities at hospitals in Charsadda and nearby towns were not adequate, officials said.

An emergency was declared in hospitals in Peshawar. The police sealed off the site of the blast and began gathering evidence.

This was the second time in eight months that Sherpao, who heads his own faction of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP-S), was targeted by a suicide bomber. In April, 28 people were killed and 40 others injured when a suicide attacker blew himself up at a rally in Charsadda that was being addressed by Sherpao. The former minister had escaped with minor injuries.

Though no group claimed responsibility for today’s blast, security officials pointed the finger of blame at pro-Taliban militants in the Swat valley of the NWFP.

Nearly 300 militants have been killed and about 200 arrested by security forces in Swat since mid-November. A spokesman for militant leader Maulana Fazlullah had recently warned they would carry out suicide attacks if the army did not stop its operation and withdraw forces from Swat.

Sherpao was the interior minister when the army raided the Lal Masjid here in July to flush out militants holed up inside. Nearly 100 people were killed in that operation. — PTI

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