PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A blast at a mosque inside a police headquarters in Pakistan on Monday killed at least 25 worshippers and wounded 120 more, officials said.
The attack happened during afternoon prayers in the northwestern city of Peshawar, close to former tribal areas that border Afghanistan where militancy has been steadily rising.
Part of the mosque roof and wall had collapsed and bloodied survivors limped from the wreckage, as bodies were ferried away in ambulances, an AFP reporter saw.
Shafiullah Khan, a senior government official in Peshawar, told AFP from the site of the blast that 25 people had been killed and 120 wounded.
"It's an emergency situation," Muhammad Asim Khan, a spokesman for the main hospital in Peshawar, told AFP, earlier putting the death toll at 17 and wounded at 80.
Many worshippers were still trapped inside, police said, while heavy machinery and fire brigades were combing the ruins in a frantic rescue operation.
The police headquarters in Peshawar is in one of the most tightly controlled areas of the city, housing intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus, and is next door to the regional secretariat.
Officers said the blast came from the second row of worshippers, with bomb disposal teams probing the possibility of a suicide attack.
Shahid Ali, a policeman who survived, said the explosion took place seconds after the imam started prayers.
"I saw black smoke rising to the sky. I ran out to save my life," the 47-year-old told AFP.
"The screams of the people are still echoing in my mind," he added. "People were screaming for help."
The drastic security breach came on the day United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had been due to visit Islamabad, although the trip was cancelled at the last minute.
Pakistan is also preparing to host an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation on Tuesday, as it works towards unlocking a vital bailout loan to prevent a looming default.
- History of violence -
Pakistan's rugged northwestern region has long been a hive of militant activity, a place where successive governments have struggled to establish a writ.
Last March, an Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a minority Shiite mosque in Peshawar, killing 64 people in Pakistan's deadliest terror attack since 2018.
The domestic chapter of the Taliban -- known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -- are also active in the region.
Since the Taliban surged back to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Islamabad has accused them of failing to secure their mountainous border, allowing fighters to flit back and forth to stage attacks and escape capture.
Over the first 12 months of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan witnessed a 50 percent surge in militant attacks, focused in the western border provinces, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
Detectives said the March 2022 Islamic State bomber in Peshawar was an Afghan exile who had returned home to train for the attack.
Peshawar was also the site of a 2014 massacre by the TTP, who raided a school for children of army personnel and killed nearly 150 people, most of them pupils.
© Agence France-Presse