Officials in Pakistan say they have killed at least 39 suspected militants in a sweeping security crackdown a day after a massive bombing claimed by Islamic State killed 88 people and injured hundreds more at a crowded shrine.
Overnight raids targeting militant hideouts also led to the arrest of 47 suspects, security officials said.
Thursday’s terror attack, the country’s deadliest in years, stunned the nation and raised questions about Pakistani authorities’ ability to rein in militant groups despite several military offensives targeting insurgents.
A suicide bomber detonated the bomb among crowds gathered for the busiest day of the week at the shrine to Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, a town in the southern Sindh province. The Pakistani military summoned officials from the Afghan embassy and said it handed Kabul a list of 76 suspected terrorists, demanding immediate action by Afghan authorities and their extradition to Islamabad.
The military did not specify who was on the list, but Islamabad has long claimed that militants are hiding in Afghanistan with the purpose of fomenting violence inside Pakistan.
An Afghan police official said Pakistan had launched an artillery assault in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, where a self-declared Isis affiliate is based.
On Thursday Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistan army spokesman, said acts of terrorism were being carried out “from hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan”. Without providing further details, he said: “We shall defend and respond.”
Amaq, a news agency affiliated to Isis, claimed the jihadi group had carried out Thursday’s attack. It was the latest such attack on devotees of Sufism, a mystical and generally moderate form of Islam despised by radical fundamentalists.
“The explosion took place when a large number of people were inside the shrine boundary,” a local police officer said. “A huge number of people come to the shrine every Thursday to take part in ritual dances and prayers. It is not possible to ensure the security of every person coming and going.”
Sughra Bibi, a 45-year-old woman taken to hospital with shrapnel wounds to her stomach, said she was near the front of the crowd watching the devotional dancing when the explosion occurred. “The terrorists are targeting us just because they hate our shrines,” she said. “They attacked another shrine a couple of months ago. But we will never give up our faith.”Tanveer Ali, a local man whose wife and son were injured, said those responsible had sinned against Islam by targeting civilians. “The terrorists will have to answer for this on the day of judgment,” he said.
Another witness, Raja Somro, inside the shrine at the time of the attack, told a local television network that hundreds of people were performing their spiritual dance called dhamal when the attacker struck at the shrine. “I saw bodies everywhere. I saw bodies of women and children,” he said. Local television channels aired footage of worshippers crying for help after the blast.
On Friday authorities raised the death toll to 88 after some of the critically wounded died. The Sindh provincial health department said a total of 343 people were wounded in the attack. Most were discharged after treatment but 76 are still in hospital, the department said.
Emergency services in Sehwan are basic so some people people were sent for treatment in Hyderabad, 90 miles away.
Pakistan has seen a rise in terrorist attacks in recent days, including an attack on peaceful protesters in the heart of Lahore, a bombing in Quetta that killed two police officers and an explosion in the frontier city of Peshawar.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, issued a statement saying an attack on Sufis was considered a “direct threat”.
A state-run television station quoted Sharif as saying that the country’s military and other security forces would use all their resources to track down and arrest the culprits. The military chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa appealed for calm, telling Pakistanis: “Your security forces shall not allow hostile powers to succeed.”
But, in a strongly worded statement, he vowed: “Each drop of the nation’s blood shall be revenged, and revenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone.”Isis has claimed a handful of previous attacks in Pakistan, including one on a Sufi shrine in November in Balochistan province. The militant group is not thought to have an extensive organisation in Pakistan, but has forged close ties with local terror franchises including a faction of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a long-established Sunni sectarian outfit.
Isis also claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on police cadets in the city of Quetta last year, thought to have been a joint operation with various jihadi groups.
Two suicide bombings in north-western Pakistan also killed six people, following an almost three-month-long lull in the volatile region. A breakaway Taliban faction claimed responsibility for one of the attacks, according to Associated Press.
Pakistan has waged several offensives against militants in recent years, including a big operation that started in mid-2014 in the last key insurgent sanctuary of North Waziristan. Pakistan declared the offensive a success, saying it had uprooted militants, killed hundreds and forced many to flee across the border into Afghanistan.