PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- At least 15 people were killed and dozens more wounded Friday when a suicide bomber, apparently a teenager, blew himself up inside a mosque in northern Pakistan, police said.
The bomber shot at police guards, then made his way into the Shiite mosque adjacent to the Hussaini Seminary in the Gulshan neighborhood of Peshawar, said Aamir Shakiri, the seminary’s principal. He then detonated his explosives in the mosque’s main hall as people prepared for Friday prayers.
Weak security around the seminary allowed the bomber to gain easy access to the mosque, Shakiri added.
Police said it appeared that two other gunmen were also involved but escaped in the confusion. A manhunt had been launched around the mostly Shiite neighborhood, police said.
Shiites, who account for about one-fifth of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, are often the target of sectarian attacks from Sunni militants who view them as heretics. No group claimed immediate responsibility for Friday’s attack.
Doctors said at least 35 wounded people, including four children, were being treated at Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar's largest health facility. At least seven of the wounded were said to be in critical condition.
Local TV footage and still images of the blast’s aftermath showed windows shattered in the mosque’s main room, with cement dust covering the prayer carpets and blood-splattered floor, a tangle of electrical wires ripped loose from the wall, and books and papers strewn across the floor as police officers inspected the crime scene.
Others showed distraught relatives, their clothes soaked in blood, helping transport the injured to a hospital.
Witnesses said the death toll could have been much higher if the bombing had occurred a short time later during Friday prayers, which about 600 people typically gather for. Reports indicated at most 200 people were present at the time of the explosion.
Bomb squad officials estimated that the explosive device contained 17 pounds of high-intensity explosives and nine pounds of ball bearings. The remains of the bomber suggested he was wearing a black shirt and trousers.
This was the second deadly suicide attack in violence-stricken Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province this week. A suicide bomber targeted a funeral ceremony in Mardan district east of Peshawar on Tuesday, killing 38 people, including a provincial assembly lawmaker, and wounding about 70.
Peshawar, the provincial capital, is close to militant strongholds in the northwestern tribal belt skirting the Afghan border.
In a statement, President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the “cowardly and heinous act” by militants, adding that it would not deter the nation from taking its fight against extremists to its “logical conclusion.”
In a separate attack Friday, a provincial lawmaker, his son and a passerby were shot and killed by unidentified gunmen outside a mosque in the southern city of Karachi.
The ongoing spate of attacks poses a huge challenge to newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who vowed to bring peace to the country and breathe life into its troubled economy.