The death toll from a suspected suicide bomb that ripped through a mosque in northwestern Pakistan Monday has risen to at least 92, marking one of the deadliest attacks in the country in years as it faces what one analyst described as “a national security crisis.”
Peshawar deputy commissioner Shafiullah Khan on Tuesday confirmed the fatalities and said more than 80 victims were still being treated in hospital following the blast at the mosque in a police compound in the city.
Nasarullah Khan, a police official who survived the explosion, said he remembered seeing “a huge burst of flames” before becoming surrounded by a plume of black dust.
Khan said his foot broke in the blast and he was stuck in the rubble for three hours.
“The ceiling fell in… the space in between the ceiling and wall is where I managed to survive,” he said.
Meanwhile, hope was fading in the search for survivors as rescue workers sifted through the rubble of the mosque that was all but destroyed Monday, when worshipers – mainly law enforcement officials – had gathered for evening prayers.
Photos and video show walls of the mosque reduced to fragments, with glass windows and paneling destroyed in the powerful blast.
“We are not expecting anyone alive to be found. Mostly dead bodies are being recovered,” Bilal Faizi, a rescue spokesperson, said Tuesday.
The blast Monday is the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in Peshawar, capital of the restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan and the site of frequent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP).
The TTP is a US-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Last year, the breakdown of an already shaky year-long ceasefire between the TTP and Pakistan’s government threatened not only escalating violence in that country but potentially an increase in cross-border tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
Initially on Monday, TTP officials Sarbakaf Mohmand and Omar Mukaram Khurasani had claimed the blast was “revenge” for the death of TTP militant Khalid Khorasani last year.
But the TTP’s main spokesperson later denied the group was involved in the attack.
“Regarding the Peshawar incident, we consider it necessary to clarify that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has nothing to do with this incident,” TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani said in a statement late Monday. “According to our laws and general constitution, any action in mosques, madrasas, funerals grounds and other sacred places is an offense.”
Pakistan authorities say an investigation is underway and have not confirmed either claim.
On Monday, Peshawar Police Chief Mohammad Aijaz Khan said the blast inside the Police Lines Mosque was “probably a suicide attack,” echoing a statement from Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
“The brutal killing of Muslims prostrating before Allah is against the teachings of the Quran,” Sharif said, adding that “targeting the House of Allah is proof that the attackers have nothing to do with Islam.”
Rights groups have condemned the deadly attack, which has raised fears of fresh violence amid a deteriorating security situation in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement Monday said the attack could have been avoided if the “state heeded earlier warnings from civil society about extremist outfits in the province.”
“Ill-equipped law enforcement personnel continue to be targeted in incidents that dearly cost civilian and police lives. We demand the state take action now,” the statement said.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the 2021 Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has “emboldened” the TTP and other terror groups.
“The TTP has also been emboldened by a Pakistani state that has had a shaky, uncertain response to the group in the last couple of years,” she said, adding a “sloppy policy toward terrorist groups has been more or less consistent across governments in Pakistan since the mid-2000s.”
Negotiations with the militants have “failed repeatedly because these groups are existentially opposed to the Pakistani state and constitution,” she added.
“This is now a national security crisis for Pakistan once again. The solution has to be a concerted military operation (against the TTP),” she said. “But that is now complicated by the fact that the TTP can go across the border into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”
The attack also comes at a fragile time for Pakistan, which has been grappling with a rising cost of living crisis as food and fuel shortages wreck havoc in the country of 220 million.
Sharif’s government has struggled to revive the country’s economy, further devastated by deadly floods last year that killed more than 1,000 people and submerged entire villages underwater.