Karachi (AFP) – A bomb ripped through a crowded Sufi shrine in Pakistan Thursday, killing up to 35 people and wounding 60, officials said, the deadliest in a series of attacks to strike the militancy-wracked country this week.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the town of Sehwan in Sindh province, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) northeast of the provincial capital Karachi.
A police source said that a suicide bomber had entered the shrine and blown himself up among the devotees, adding the shrine was crowded on a Thursday, considered a sacred day for prayers.
“Up to 35 people have been killed and more than 60 others wounded,” provincial health minister Sikandar Ali Mandro told AFP. A senior police official confirmed the death toll.
“We fear that casualties might increase,” senior local government official Munawar Ali Mahesar said, adding the rescuers were trying to reach the wounded.
Emergency services are basic in Sehwan, with the nearest main hospital some 130 kilometres away.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif swiftly issued a statement saying an attack on Sufis was considered a “direct threat”, while military chief General Qamer Javed Bajwa appealed for calm, reassuring Pakistanis that “Your security forces shall not allow hostile powers to succeed”.
Pakistan has seen a dramatic improvement in security in the past two years, but a series of attacks this week — most claimed by the Pakistani Taliban — has shaken the growing sense of optimism.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban said it had carried out a suicide bombing in Lahore which killed 13 people and wounded dozens more Monday, days after the group had vowed to launch a fresh offensive.
Four suicide bombers struck northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, killing six people and unnerving civilians further.
“The past few days have been hard, and my heart is with the victims. But we can’t let these events divide us, or scare us,” Sharif said in his statement.
“We have faced tougher circumstances, and still persevered.”
The attacks underscore Pakistan’s struggle to stamp out extremism, which was stepped up after the country’s deadliest ever attack, a Pakistani Taliban assault on a school in Peshawar in 2014 which left more than 150 people dead — mostly children.
The army intensified a long-awaited operation in the semi-autonomous tribal areas, where militants had previously operated with impunity, and the government launched a vaunted National Action Plan against extremism.
Emboldened Pakistanis are once again attending public gatherings and the growing confidence is palpable after more than a decade of militant attacks.
But critics have repeatedly warned that the crackdown does not address the root causes of extremism, and groups like the Pakistani Taliban — and, increasingly, Islamic State — can still carry out spectacular assaults.