ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Taliban militants carried out a double suicide bombing outside the shrine of the 13th century Muslim Sufi saint Ahmed Sultan, popularly known as Sakhi Sarwar, in Dera Ghazi Khan district, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, killing 42 people and injuring more than 70 on Sunday.
Hundreds of Muslims had gathered at the shrine for a ceremony when the attacks took place.
“We have recovered 41 bodies so far,” police officer Zahid Hussain said, adding that more than 70 people were wounded. “Both were suicide attackers, they came on foot and blew themselves up when police on duty stopped them.”
Many of those wounded in the attacks were in serious condition, he said, and the injured have been taken to the Dera Ghazi Khan hospital for treatment. Regional police chief Ahmed Mubarak confirmed that two suicide bombers tried to enter the shrine but failed and blew themselves up.
He said two of the attackers’ accomplices were arrested by rescue officials and law enforcement agencies as they tried to detonate their explosive vests. They were handed over to investigation agencies, which moved them to an undisclosed location for interrogation.
Hussain said the detainees included a suspected suicide bomber identified as Fida Hussain, a 15- to 16-year-old Afghan refugee from Pakistan’s tribal area, he said.
“These were suicide bombings and we arrested an attacker who could not completely detonate the explosives on his body. He was wounded,” he said.
A private TV channel quoted Fida as saying that he had failed this time but would carry out a similar attack whenever he got the chance.
The attacks were condemned by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the US embassy in Islamabad.
“Such cowardly acts of terror clearly demonstrate that the culprits involved neither have any faith nor any belief in human values,” said Gilani,
He added, “Such violent acts only seem to be conspiracy to divide the society and create fear.”
A US embassy statement said, “No one is safe from the fanatic hatred of terrorists. They target political leaders, devout pilgrims, and school children. Nothing can justify their slaughter of innocents.”
A police official, requesting anonymity, said the shrine had received threats from militants. Sufis, practitioners of the mystical, esoteric dimension of Islam, have increasingly been the target of bloody attacks by Islamist militants in Pakistan.
Taliban militants, who follow an austere interpretation of Sunni Islam, condemn other interpretations of Islam as heretical and have also launched repeated attacks on the country's Shia and Christian minorities.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up among crowds of worshippers at Pakistan's most popular Sufi site, the Data Darbar shrine in the eastern city of Lahore, in July last year, killing 42 people.
On Oct. 7, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a Sufi shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, killing nine worshippers, including two children.
Also in October, a bomb blast outside the country's second most popular Sufi shrine, dedicated to the 12th century saint Baba Farid, also known as Ganjshakar, in the Punjab town of Pakpattan killed four people.
Nearly 4,200 people have been killed in suicide attacks and bomb explosions, blamed on homegrown Taliban and other Islamist extremist networks, since government troops stormed a radical mosque, called the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007.
Dera Ghazi Khan, 300 miles (480 kilometers) southwest of Islamabad, sits close to the tribal area which is known as a hub of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants. The rugged tribal region is described by Washington as the most dangerous place on Earth. Sunday's attack is the fifth in as many days.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the twin suicide attacks.
“Our men carried out these attacks and we will carry out more in retaliation for government operations against our people in the northwest,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Taliban spokesman, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Ehsan is the same person who claimed responsibility for the killing of Pakistan Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was assassinated for seeking a review of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The Taliban had also accused Bhatti and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer of supporting Asia Bibi (also known as Asia Noreen), a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, and had announced bounty on their heads. Taseer was gunned down by one of his own security guard in Islamabad in January while Bhatti was murdered two months later.
Although police have registered a case against unidentified killers, no significant progress has been made in the investigations into the killing of the Christian minister.
Dr. Paul Bhatti, elder brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, who has been elected the chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in place of his deceased brother, expressed “grave concern” over the probe into the murder of his brother.
In a recent statement, Bhatti said that several weeks had passed but the government had not shared any details of the investigation into the minister’s killing with the mourning minorities.
He demanded that the Government of Pakistan establish a judicial commission to probe his brother’s murder. The government is yet to make a decision in this regard though Bhatti has been made an adviser to the prime minister on minorities affairs, a designation equivalent to a federal minister.