Senior Pakistani officers among dozens dead in mosque attack

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2009 

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Islamic extremists killed at least 36 people Friday, including senior army officers and their children, as they gathered for prayers at a mosque for soldiers in Rawalpindi, the home of Pakistan's military headquarters.

Five active-duty officers died in the small-arms, grenade and suicide bomb attack — Maj. Gen. Bilal Umar, the director general of the army's armored corps; a brigadier; two lieutenant colonels; and a major — the military said in a statement. Gen. Mohammad Yusuf, a former vice chief of the military, was among the 75 people who were wounded.

At least 11 of the 17 children who died were the sons of army officers, including the son of a major general and the sons of two brigadiers. The fathers of three senior officers, including the father of a major general, also were killed.

The mosque is in the heavily guarded military living-quarters area of Rawalpindi, surrounded by housing for officers. Access to it is restricted to army personnel and their families.

Late Friday local time, reports said that the main Pakistani extremist group, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which has close ties to al Qaida, had claimed responsibility for the attack.

"The timing and the target were no accident: in the very heart of the Pakistani military establishment, and right after President Obama asked for action against Afghan insurgents based in Pakistan," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to discuss Friday's attack publicly.

"It was a very clear warning about what would happen if the Pakistanis responded to the pressure from Washington," the official said. "The chances that they would were always poor, and now they're probably worse than poor."

Witnesses said that at least four assailants struck at around 1:20 p.m. local time, hurling grenades and opening fire on worshippers before two of the attackers blew themselves up in the mosque, wrecking the building and leaving the holy site stained with blood and body parts. Security forces killed two assailants, who'd fired indiscriminately, the military said.

Ameer Sheikh, a retired army officer who worships at the mosque daily and went to the scene immediately, said the attackers had gone around executing people. "They got hold of their hair and shot them," he said.

"I saw people who used to be in the front row with me, lying there dead," Sheikh said. "I met a lot of army officers who had rushed there, desperately looking for their sons."

Sheikh's son, Nasir Ali Sheikh, who was in the mosque at the time of the attack, managed to slip out and hide in some bushes. He said that the terrorists also had struck the women's section of the mosque.

"It was very terrible inside," Nasir Ali Sheikh said. "There were two people wearing belts with grenades and bullets. . . . For 15 to 20 minutes, we were helpless and hopeless."

Officials said the mosque attackers had evaded a security cordon, with reports saying that they'd worn ammunition vests and used ladders to climb into the mosque through its windows.

"The area is a high-security zone," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman. "It is yet to be established where the breach took place."

In October, the military entered Pakistan's South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, which was the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan's base and a haven for al Qaida, and since then terrorists have gone on a rampage in Pakistan, killing more than 400 people.

Earlier this week, a bomber tried to enter a naval complex in Islamabad, but he was stopped at the gates, where he blew himself up, killing two guards.

In October, gunmen stormed the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, which is less than two miles from the mosque, in a 20-hour siege that left 14 people in the complex and nine militants dead, a terrorist operation that included Pakistani Taliban and militants from other extremist groups.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. John Walcott contributed to this article from Washington.)

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