RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a mosque and two other militants fired on worshipers near Pakistan’s military headquarters after Friday prayers, killing at least 40 people, including army officials.
The mosque is frequented by military officials in the town of Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan’s military establishment and only a 30-minute drive from the capital Islamabad.
The attack in what should be one of the most secure areas of Pakistan was the latest challenge by militants against the writ of the state. A local television station said people were executed in cold blood.
“There are children among them who had come to pray with their fathers. There are also elderly, retired security officials,” said military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas.
“We have reports of some security officials killed or injured but we are confirming that.” He said an army major-general was killed.
Abbas put the death toll at 36. Four “terrorists” also died, he said. Rescue services and a senior police official said 40. But it’s not clear if that figure included the four militants.
Pakistan’s army is fighting Taliban fighters blamed for bombings that have killed hundreds of people since an offensive was launched on their stronghold South Waziristan in October.
The nuclear-armed country faces mounting U.S. pressure to root out Islamist militants operating along forbidding border areas to help in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the mosque while two others kept firing outside. Ten children were among the dead.
“I believe they are not just the enemy of Islam but also of the country. They want to finish the upcoming generation,” he said.
A policeman said the militants arrived in a grey Toyota car.
The cleric had just finished his sermon with the phrase “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) when an explosion shook worshippers in the Parade Lane mosque, a witness said.
“As soon as we finished prayers. I heard a blast and firing. I saw some wounded laying in the courtyard of the mosque,” said Bakhtawar Hussain.
The violence will pressure President Asif Ali Zardari to do more to neutralize the threat from the stubborn Taliban insurgency. But he is an increasingly unpopular figure with a weak government who has been at odds with the all-powerful military, which sets national security policy.
It was the second brazen assault on the area since October, when suspected Taliban gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked the army compound, killing three hostages and two army commandos.
“Initial information indicates that they were two to three attackers who entered the mosque by scaling a wall,” senior police official Aslam Tarin told Reuters of Friday’s attack.
A helicopter hovered over a wide avenue sealed off by security forces with G3 rifles, apparently searching for militants who may have fled after the attack.
In outlining his Afghanistan strategy in a speech on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama made a plea to Pakistan to fight the “cancer” of extremism and said Washington would not tolerate Pakistan allowing its territory to be a safe haven for militants.
That request may be unrealistic in a country where anti-U.S. feelings and suspicions run high. Many say Pakistan should not be fighting the United States’ war against militants. Failure in Afghanistan could heavily damage Obama’s presidency.
“This is not our war. This is America’s war and as long as we continue to stay in the American bloc things will not change,” said Rawalpindi resident Mujtaba Abbasi. (For more (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Michael Georgy)