, RAWALPINDI, Dec 4 – At least 30 people were killed on Friday when suicide bombers stormed a packed mosque in Pakistan\\\’s garrison city Rawalpindi, with gunfire and explosions rocking the area, officials said.
The brazen raid by at least two attackers came as people gathered for Friday prayers in the city that adjoins Islamabad. Rawalpindi is also home to the military headquarters and is a frequent target of Taliban insurgents.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP that militants launched a strike on a mosque frequented by military officers near Qasim market. The area was cordoned off as soldiers searched for more attackers.
"More than one terrorist attacked. They exploded bombs inside the mosque… There were shots fired," he said, adding: "Terrorists were killed but we don\\\’t yet know how many."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the private ARY television channel that bombers disguised as worshippers had entered the mosque, and blamed Taliban-linked insurgents for the attack.
"There were two suicide bombers and the roof of the mosque collapsed. According to the information I received a few moments ago, above 30 were killed and there are so many people injured," he said.
"They are taking revenge for the Pakistan army\\\’s successful operations in Swat and Waziristan regions," Malik added.
Abbas put the death toll at 26 people, and said 20 others were injured.
Pakistan is in the grip of a fierce Islamist insurgency, with more than 2,570 people killed in attacks in the last two-and-a-half years.
Suicide bombs and strikes have intensified this year as the military pursues offensives against Taliban strongholds across the northwest.
An AFP reporter at the scene said that security forces had set up a secure perimeter around the site, with helicopters circling overhead and security forces preparing to enter the area to flush out any remaining militants.
Abdul Waheed, an official at a nearby traffic police office, said their building was shaken by a huge blast at around noon.
"We rushed out and saw that the blast was inside the mosque. A few moments later five more blasts were heard," Waheed told AFP.
"According to our estimate, some people had attacked the mosque and a few of them were hiding in a different area of Parade Lane," Waheed said, referring to the area where the mosque is located.
Another eye witness, Ishtiaq, told the private Geo television station that he was inside the mosque when he heard several blasts.
"There were about 200 or 300 worshippers in the hall. Army officials mostly offer their Friday prayers in this mosque," he said.
In October, the army headquarters in Rawalpindi was the target of a militant siege and hostage-taking which hit the heart of the nuclear-armed country\\\’s most powerful establishment.
Pakistan\\\’s military is engaged in offensives against Islamist militants across much of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region branded the most dangerous place on Earth by Washington.
FATA has been plagued by instability and militancy for years, exacerbated in 2001 when a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime from Afghanistan, sending hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants into the lawless region.
About 30,000 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets poured into South Waziristan in October to try to dismantle Taliban strongholds. The military say they are making progress crushing the Islamist threat.
But Washington and London are pressuring Pakistan to do more to capture Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and prevent militants crossing the border and targeting foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Pakistani authorities deny that bin Laden is on their soil, while Islamabad is focused on militants it considers a domestic threat.