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56 die in blast at Pakistan mosque

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide bomber struck inside a Shiite Muslim mosque in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar during Friday prayers, killing at least 56 worshippers and wounding 194 people, hospital officials said.

The Islamic State in Khorasan province, headquartered in Afghanistan, claimed Friday’s devastating attack in a statement translated by the SITE Intelligence group and posted on the group’s Amaq News Agency. The statement identified the attacker as Afghan, posted his picture and said “Islamic State fighters are constantly targeting Shi’ites living in Pakistan and Afghanistan despite the intense security measures adopted by the Taliban militia and the Pakistani police to secure Shi’a temples and centers.”

According to Asim Khan, the spokesman at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, many of the wounded were in critical condition. Scores of victims were peppered with shrapnel, several had limbs amputated and others were injured by flying debris.

Peshawar Police Chief Muhammed Ejaz Khan said the violence started when an armed attacker opened fire on police outside the mosque in Peshawar’s old city. One police officer was killed in the gunfight and another was wounded. The attacker then ran inside the mosque and detonated his suicide vest.

The suicide bomber had strapped a powerful explosive device to his body, packed with 12 pounds of explosives, said Moazzam Jah Ansari, the top police official for Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province where Peshawar is the capital.

Within seconds, a powerful explosion occurred and the camera lens was obscured with dust and debris. Ansari said the crudely made device was packed with ball bearings, a method of constructing a bomb to inflict the most carnage spraying a larger area with deadly projectiles. The ball bearings caused the high death toll, Ansari said.

Local police official Waheed Khan said the explosion occurred as worshippers had gathered for Friday prayers in the Kucha Risaldar Mosque. There are fears the death toll could still rise further, he added.

Ambulances rushed through congested narrow streets carrying the wounded to Lady Reading Hospital, where doctors worked feverishly.

At the Lady Reading Hospital Emergency department, there was chaos as doctors struggled to move the many wounded into operating theaters. Hundreds of relatives gathered outside the emergency department, many of them wailing and beating their chests, pleading for information about their loved ones.

Outside the mosque, Shiites pressed through the cordoned-off streets. Kucha Risaldar Mosque is one of the oldest in the area, predating the creation of Pakistan in 1947 as a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.

Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the bombing. His national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, said the bombing was a “heinous terrorist attack” and promised that those behind the carnage would “be brought to justice.

“We will not allow our gains against terrorism & our internal security to be compromised at any cost,” Yusuf tweeted.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, saying the perpetrators were intent on “sowing discord among Muslims.” In a statement on the ministry’s website, spokesman Saeed Khatizadeh expressed his hope that Pakistan’s government puts an end to such attacks with “firm actions,” without elaborating.

Information for this article was contributed Munir Ahmed and Amir Vahdat of The Associated Press.