ISLAMABAD — A suicide bomber marked the first anniversary of the military operation against Islamabad's radical Red Mosque by targeting police guarding the site, killing at least 15 people.
The attack on Sunday raised fresh concerns about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan and whether it can cope with the scale of the extremist challenge now confronting it.
The unofficial death toll stood at 19 late in the day, mostly policemen. There were over 40 injured. A bomber wearing a suicide vest walked up to a group of police officers stationed around 300 yards from the Red Mosque at just before 8pm local time, officials said.
Bashir Shaheen, a retired soldier who lives close by, said that body parts were scattered across the area when he arrived at the scene of the blast: arms, legs, torsos. Remains were thrown up to 60 yards away and wounded lay all around.
"They (the injured) were moaning, some were screaming for help," said Shaheen.
Police helmets, shields and protective vests were thrown around the site of the blast, at a crossroads, amid pools of blood. The walls of nearby buildings were pot-marked, apparently by the ball-bearings contained in the suicide jacket.
The attack came after a highly charged day, which saw thousands of the fervent Muslims gather at the Red Mosque, in central Islamabad, for a "conference" to commemorate the storming of the mosque last July when the army moved against extremists who had taken control of the mosque. According to the authorities around 100 died in that military operation.
The bombing also followed the launch of an offensive, last week, by the armed forces against Islamist warlords based near Peshawar, the provincial capital in the northwest.
A huge police cordon had been thrown around the Red Mosque conference. The police targeted by the bomber were positioned in the outer-most ring of security and hit minutes after the conference ended.
Witnesses said that the blast shook nearby buildings. Reports said that the bomber, described by authorities as a man in his 30s, used about 11 pounds of explosive material and an equal weight of ball-bearings.
Mohammad Iqbal, a motorcyclist who came to the scene afterwards, said: "They are not humans who do this. Islam does not allow it."
The raid on the Red Mosque a year ago unleashed a vicious campaign of suicide bombings across Pakistan, aimed mostly at the police and army, but peace talks opened by the new Pakistani government with Taliban militants, who were blamed for the attacks, had quieted things down.
However, last month a deadly explosion at the Danish embassy in Islamabad had shown, experts believe, that an intractable element among the militants had decided to carry on the carnage.
Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Danish embassy bombing, suggesting that while Pakistan's home-grown Taliban movement may be willing to negotiate, hardcore international jihadists are not.
In Pakistan it is widely believed that many more than 100 died in the Red Mosque operation, mostly girls studying at the adjacent seminary, and that a thousand or more bodies were buried in secret graves.
Belief in that conspiracy has made the Red Mosque one of the burning political issues in Pakistan, and it's one reason the ruling party was punished in February's elections.
Sunday's bombing brought new questions about why the government allowed the incendiary gathering at the Red Mosque that preceded it. Members of banned extremist groups were said to be among the crowd and President Pervez Musharraf and the United States were the chief objects of scorn. One speaker implored the crowd to pursue jihad in Afghanistan.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik, who came to the site of the blast, defended the security measures. "There is no system for detecting suicide bombers, anywhere in the world. There was no security lapse whatsoever," said Malik.
Saeed Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent based in Islamabad.