LAHORE: Gunmen yesterday stormed two Pakistani mosques belonging to a minority sect in Lahore, taking worshippers hostage and sparking gun battles with police that left 70 people dead.
Squads of militants burst into prayer halls firing guns, throwing grenades and taking hostages in the deadliest attack on Pakistan’s second-biggest city – increasingly hit by Taliban and al-Qa’ida-linked violence. Both mosques, in upmarket Model Town and the busy area of Garhi Shahu, belonged to the Ahmadi community, also known as Qadiani, which has tens of thousands of members.
Pakistan’s leading rights group said the community had received threats in Lahore for more than a year. The attacks sparked more than two hours of gun battles with police and commandos, as bursts of heavy gunfire rocked the neighbourhoods and rescue services raced through the streets to tend to the victims.
As the standoff ended in both locations, officials spoke of scenes of carnage – particularly in Garhi Shahu where dozens of bodies were found. “At least 70 people have been killed in both the attacks,” said Sajjad Bhutta, the top city administrative official in Lahore. Rizwan Nasir, head of the rescue services in Lahore, said 108 people were wounded as police continued to search for any remaining attackers.
District civil defence official Muzhar Ahmed said earlier 42 bodies from Garhi Shahu had been recovered so far. A further 22 died in Model Town, he said. Taliban and al-Qa’ida-linked attacks have increasingly hit the city of eight million near the Indian border as part of a nationwide bombing campaign that has killed more than 3300 people in three years in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Speaking after a two-hour battle that wrested control of the Model Town mosque, senior police official Rana Ayaz said three attackers had managed to get on to the roof. One of the attackers blew himself up and two were arrested – one of them a teenager and the other seriously wounded. “They came into the mosque from the back and started firing. They were armed with hand grenades and suicide vests and other weapons,” Mr Ayaz said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attacks, expressing “deep sorrow and grief over the loss of precious lives”. Founded by Ghulam Ahmad, who was born in 1838, the Ahmadi sect has a number of unique views, including that Ahmad himself was a prophet and that Jesus died aged 120 in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Yesterday’s incident was the first major attack in Lahore since March suicide attacks seconds apart targeted the Pakistani military, killing 57 people shortly before the main weekly prayers were to begin. Eight attacks have killed more than 170 people in Lahore over the past year. Religious violence in Pakistan, mostly between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shi’ites, has killed more than 4000 people in the past decade.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it had warned of threats against the Ahmadi community centre in Lahore for more than a year and demanded “foolproof security and protection” from the government.
It expressed concern over “the increasing sectarian dimension” of militancy in Pakistan, a scourge it called “a big security threat to the entire society”.