PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Taliban suicide bomber attacked a funeral in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 37 people in the latest in a string of Islamist militant attacks aimed at undermining Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government.
The funeral was for the relative of a pro-government, ethnic Pashtun tribal elder near the northwestern city of Peshawar, top district administrator, Siraj Ahmed, told Reuters.
The attacker struck as mourners were about to hold funeral prayers, officials and survivors said.
“As we are readying for prayers, a boy wrapped in a shawl headed toward us. People shouted to the imam (prayer leader) to wait for him to join us but as he came close he blew himself up,” said witness Mehmood Shah said.
A top provincial health official said 37 people had been killed and 52 wounded.
The Pashtun elder whose relative was being buried, Hakeem Khan, was instrumental in raising a militia force, known as a lashkar, with the support of the government to fight militants.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility.
“These lashkars are raised to create chaos instead of maintaining peace,” militant spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“The lashkars and the army are fighting us at the behest of the Americans. We will continue attacks on them,” he said.
It was not immediately clear if the Pashtun elder, Khan, had been killed or wounded in the explosion.
Bloodied shoes and caps littered the ground where the attack took place as stunned survivors milled around or bundled the wounded into trucks and away to hospital, television images showed.
Al Qaeda-linked Taliban militants have staged numerous attacks in Pakistan over recent years, many in the northwest near the border with Afghanistan, where the Pakistani military is battling the insurgents.
“It was like doomsday ... There were dead and injured lying all around,” said resident Anwar Khan, who went to help after the blast.
The attack came a day after militants set off a car-bomb at a natural gas filling station in the central city of Faisalabad killing 25 people and wounding about 125.
Pakistani Taliban fighting to bring down the U.S.-backed government also claimed responsibility for that attack.
The army says that several military offensives over the past three years have weakened the militants but bomb attacks are still common.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider, Izaz Mohmand and Saud Mehsud; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Robert Birsel