The death toll from the suicide bombing at a mosque in Pakistan has risen sharply to 95 with at least 225 people injured, a senior police official said on Tuesday.
The attack targeted police officers worshipping at the mosque in a heavily-fortified security forces’ compound in Peshawar during afternoon prayers, with an attacker detonating a suicide vest from the front row of the mosque. The explosion caused a large portion of the roof of the building to cave in.
Kashif Aftab Abbasi, a senior officer in Peshawar, told reporters on Tuesday that the death toll had been upgraded after more bodies were recovered from the rubble.
Search and rescue teams finally concluded an operation to remove rubble from the site more than 24 hours after the blast, police commissioner Riaz Mehsud told the Dawn newspaper.
A video shared on social media from the blast site showed an elderly man lying under concrete rubble as rescue workers talked to him through a gap.
More dead bodies were pulled out from the rubble overnight and early on Tuesday said Mohammad Asim, a government hospital spokesman in Peshawar, adding that a number of those taken to hospital critically injured had since died.
“Most of them were policemen,” Mr Asim said of the victims.
A survivor of the blast said he was lying with a dead body over him for seven hours before he was rescued.
“I remained trapped under the rubble with a dead body over me for seven hours,” Wajahat Ali, a 23-year-old police constable told the AFP news agency from a hospital, adding that he had lost all hopes for his own survival.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province governor acknowledged a “security lapse” must have taken place to allow an attack to take place within a high-security police headquarters area.
Ghulam Ali, the provincial governor, said an investigation will show “how the terrorist entered the mosque” in such a well-fortified district.
An initial police report into the cause of the blast has confirmed explosives were used, according to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, which said it had seen a copy of the report.
“A severed head has been recovered from inside the debris. The use of explosives in the incident has been confirmed, while other factors are being evaluated to confirm the nature of the blast,” it said.
On Tuesday morning, distraught family members arrived at hospitals and the site of the bomb blast to look for their loved ones who were at the mosque at the time of the attack.
While some raced to hospitals to identify the dead and tend to the wounded others thronged outside the shattered mosque in the hope of finding their kin alive under the rubble.
Others began burying the remains of loved ones at graveyards in Peshawar and elsewhere.
A video showed Pakistani police officers taking part in a wreath-laying ceremony for the fallen officers and holding mass funeral prayers for them.
An elderly woman cried “my son, my child” as she walked alongside an ambulance carrying coffins, as rescue workers stretchered wounded people to a hospital emergency unit.
“The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable. This is no less than an attack on Pakistan,” tweeted Pakistan’s prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who visited the wounded in a Peshawar hospital and vowed “stern action” against those behind the bombing.
He expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, saying their pain “cannot be described in words”.
Conflicting accounts have emerged over who is responsible for one of the deadliest attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in recent years.
Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban known as Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack and called it a “revenge” for the death of TTP militant Khalid Khorasani last year.
But more than 10 hours later, TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani denied the group had any involvement, saying it was not its policy to target mosques or other religious sites.
He said those responsible for the attack could face punitive action under TTP’s policy, without clarifying why a TTP commander had initially claimed responsibility for the bombing.
“Regarding the Peshawar incident, we consider it necessary to clarify that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has nothing to do with this incident. According to our laws and general constitution, any action in mosques, madrasas, funerals grounds and other sacred places is an offence,” the TTP spokesperson said in a statement late on Monday.
More than 300 worshippers were praying in the mosque – which is situated within a police compound and is mostly attended by security officials – when a bomber detonated his explosive vest on Monday afternoon. Following the blast, the roof caved in, resulting in more casualties, and rescuers had to remove mounds of debris to reach the people trapped under the rubble.
Meena Gul, a 38-year-old police officer who was in the mosque when the bomb went off, told Associated Press he has no idea how he escaped unhurt. He said he heard cries and screams after the blast.
Afghanistan joined countries pouring in condolences as well as condemnation over the attack. Its foreign ministry said it was “saddened to learn that numerous people lost their lives and many others were injured by an explosion at a mosque in Peshawar” and condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
The US embassy in Islamabad said: “The United States stands with Pakistan in condemning all forms of terrorism.”
India’s foreign minister extended “deep condolences” to the families of the victims of the terror attack in Peshawar.
“We strongly condemn this attack, which has taken the lives of so many people,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tweeted.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described the bombing as “particularly abhorrent” for targeting a place of worship, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.
Cash-strapped Pakistan has been hit hard with a surge in militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their ceasefire with the government amid a severe ongoing economic crisis in the country.
The TTP is a US-designated foreign terrorist organisation which is separate from – but a close ally of – the Afghan Taliban.
It has been waging an insurgency in Pakistan for the past 15 years primarily to seek stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, although it has other demands including the release of its members from Pakistani jails and a reduction of the Pakistan army’s presence in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province it has long used as its base.
Monday’s attack comes as Pakistan seeks a crucial installment of $1.1bn from a $6bn bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, with talks stalled.