ISLAMABAD — Extremists stormed two mosques belonging to a religious minority in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore Friday, killing at least 70 people in the worst-ever assault on the country's Ahmadi community.
Some news reports put the death toll at more than 80, with more than 100 people injured. Police suspect that the assailants have links to the Pakistani Taliban, the group with some links to al Qaida that some Obama administration officials think may have played a role in the failed May 1 car bombing in New York's Times Square.
Seven or more attackers charged into the mosques, firing from machine guns and throwing hand grenades, in Model Town and Garhi Shahu, residential areas several miles apart, media accounts said. Some wore suicide vests.
The attacks were timed to coincide with the weekly Friday prayers, at around 1:40 p.m., when both mosques were packed. The Model Town assault ended relatively quickly, but at Garhi Shahu, a siege involving hundreds of hostages continued for about four hours until police commandos gained control.
An estimated 4 million to 5 million Ahmadis live in Pakistan, where they are treated under the law as non-Muslims for beliefs that many mainstream Muslims consider heretical. Ahmadis think that Mohammed wasn't the last prophet and are frequently victims of intimidation and violence, but Friday's bloodshed marked another grim milestone for Pakistan.
The attack also highlighted the extremist threat in Pakistan's heartland Punjab province, of which Lahore is the bustling capital. Federal officials have accused the Punjab provincial government of downplaying the menace it faces and tolerating religious hardliners.
The Punjab government argues that the terrorist threat comes not from militant groups inside the province but from the tribal area in the northwest, where the Pakistani Taliban are based. The Punjab administration is in the hands of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N is in opposition to the national government in Islamabad.
It was the deadliest attack in Lahore since a wave of attacks hit Pakistan's cultural capital, starting with a March 2009 gun assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team.
Munawar Ali Shahid, who was worshipping at the Garhi Shahu mosque at the time of the attack, told McClatchy that he saved himself by running into another part of the building where many people then locked themselves in.
"There was continuous firing for four hours. When I came out and went to the main hall, there were dozens of bodies, maybe fifty or sixty. The floor was flooded with blood. I also saw the bodies of two suicide attackers," Shahid said.
Most of the carnage at the Garhi Shahu mosque was caused by the suicide attackers. At least one was caught alive. The others were shot by police or blew themselves up, but it's possible that some also escaped.
"The death toll is more than 70," Sajjad Bhutta, a senior official of the Lahore city administration, told reporters. "At Garhi Shahu, we have found the heads of three suicide attackers."
Many worshippers at the Model Town mosque managed to save themselves by barricading off part of the main prayer hall. According to one account, some of the grenades thrown in had long fuses, allowing a former army officer present to hurl two of them back out before they exploded.
"We have written so many letters to the government of Punjab, to the IG (head of the Punjab police) about the threats we face, but they just ignored the situation," said Shahid, who's a leading member of the Ahmadi community, "What can we do? Nothing."
Both mosques were guarded mostly by young men from the Ahmadi community, who were the first to die. A small number of police officers also had been deployed to guard them. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, said it had been warning about the threats to the Ahmadis for more than a year.
"The Punjab government is living in a state of denial, " said Ali Dayan Hasan, a South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based group. "The scale and scope of this attack shows the marriage of Punjabi militancy with the Taliban and al Qaida."
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister for the Punjab government, said that police learned from the one captured suicide bomber that the team of 10-12 terrorists had entered Lahore a week to 10 days ago from the Waziristan tribal agency and had been staying at a center for Muslim preachers on the edge of the city.
"We keep tightening security, which reduces the frequency of attacks, but until the networks are broken (in the tribal area), they will continue to happen," Sanaullah said.
The Pakistani military is battling the Taliban in the tribal area and is under strong U.S. pressure to expand its operations there.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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