At least 72 people were killed and more than 150 others injured when a suspected suicide attacker blew himself up at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province on Thursday, the latest in a string of terror attacks in the country this week.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander situated in Sehwan, 132 km from Jamshoro and around 140 km from Hyderabad.
“At least 72 are dead and over 150 have been injured,” senior police officer Shabbir Sethar told Reuters, adding that the death toll was likely to rise.
The IS claimed responsibility for the bombing, the terror group’s news agency Amaq reported.
The suicide bomber attacked at the time of ‘Dhamaal’, when devotees remember the saint through music and dancing. Some Muslims sects consider dhamaal to be an anti-Islamic practice.
A spokesman for medical charity Edhi said the attacker appeared to have targeted the women’s wing of the shrine, and around 30 children accompanying their mothers were dead.
“We were there for the love of our saint, for the worship of Allah,” a wailing woman told Dawn News television channel outside the shrine, her headscarf streaked in blood. “Who would hurt us when we were there for devotion?”
Large crowds frequent the famed shrine, which has the mausoleum of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, on Thursdays. Thursdays are important days for local Sufis.
A statement from the Sindh police spokesman said the bomber entered the shrine as crowds massed on Thursday. Many wounded were ferried in private cars to hospitals.
“The incident took place outside the mazar (shrine) where Golden Gate is located,” Hyderabad commissioner Kazi Shahid Parvez told the media. An emergency has been declared in hospitals across Dadu, Sehwan and Hyderabad.
Eyewitnesses described gory scenes in the shrine’s compound where human body parts were seen scattered. Some bodies were also seen lying on the floor.
Several injured are stated to be in a critical condition, state-run Radio Pakistan reported.
Television footage showed army and paramilitary medical teams reaching the site and injured people being taken to nearby hospitals in ambulances and a military helicopter.
Following the attack, chaos overtook the area as rescue teams were unavailable to cope with the flood of victims. Scores of people died in the courtyard of the shrine for want of medical attention.
Sehwan does not have a proper hospital and the nearest medical facility is in Hyderabad where ambulances finally took the victims.
Protests erupted at the bomb site as relatives of those killed voiced their anger over the absence of any medical assistance.
Mairaj Ahmed, in-charge of Edhi Foundation, said, “Ambulances from Hyderabad and Jamshoro have been sent to Sehwan. The town has a taluka hospital but it is not equipped with a trauma centre to deal with emergency cases.”
According to the media, there were unconfirmed reports about a female suicide bomber involved in the brutal incident.
In the latest wave of terror gripping the country, more than 100 people have lost their lives in the eighth such violent attack in the past five days.
Pakistan Armed Forces spokesperson Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted that army and Rangers have been deployed to the site for medical support.
“Each drop of the nation’s blood shall be revenged, and revenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone,” army chief Qamar Bajwa said in a statement.
Pakistan Air Force’s C 130 planes will lift injured from Nawab Shah airport and Navy helicopters will take victims from Sehwan and surroundings, he said in the tweet.
Recent terrorist attacks are being carried out “on directions from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We shall defend and respond,” he said.
This was the fourth major terror attack in the country in five days. Shortly after the blast, the army announced it was closing the border with Afghanistan with immediate effect for security reasons.
On Wednesday, seven people were killed when suicide bombers targeted a van carrying judges in Peshawar and a government compound in the restive Mohmand region. Those attacks came two days after a suicide bombing in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, killed 13 people and injured dozens.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Taliban, claimed the attacks in Mohmand agency and Lahore while the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed the attack in Peshawar.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa have vowed to fight the new wave of terrorism, which broke a relative lull across the country in recent months. The manner in which the attacks are taking place suggests that the country's fight against terrorism is not yielding results.
Sharif condemned the bombing, decrying the assault on the Sufi religious minority. He vowed to fight Islamist militants, who target the government, judiciary and anyone who does not adhere to their strict interpretation of Sunni Islam.
“The past few days have been hard, and my heart is with the victims,” Sharif said.
“But we can’t let these events divide us, or scare us. We must stand united in this struggle for the Pakistani identity, and universal humanity.”
In a similar attack last year, at least 45 people, including women and children, were killed in an explosion that struck Dargah Shah Noorani in Khuzdar district of Balochistan.
Sufism has been practised in Pakistan for centuries. Lal Shahbaz Qalander is Pakistan’s most revered Sufi shrine, dedicated to a 13th-century saint whose spirit is invoked by devotees in ecstatic daily dancing and singing rituals in Sehwan Sharif.
Most of Pakistan’s radical Sunni militant groups -- including the Pakistani Taliban’s various factions and Islamic State loyalists -- despise Sufis, Shiite Muslims and other religious minorities.
(With inputs from Reuters)