A suicide bomb blast has ripped through a crowded minority Shiite Muslim mosque in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 56 worshipers and injuring at least 194.
The deadly attack occurred during Friday afternoon prayers in a congested neighborhood in central Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Mohammad Asim, a spokesman for the nearby Lady Ready Hospital, confirmed the casualties. He told reporters more than a dozen people among the injured were in “critical condition” and the death toll could increase.
Haroon Rashid, a senior police officer, told reporters that the attacker stormed the mosque in the famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar, killing two police guards at the gate before detonating his vest inside the main hall packed with hundreds of worshipers.
A witness, Shayan Haider, had been preparing to enter the mosque when a powerful explosion threw him on to the street.
“I opened my eyes and there was dust and bodies everywhere,” the English-language Dawn newspaper quoted Haider as saying.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan strongly condemned the attack and directed the authorities to provide urgent care required to the affected people, his office said.
No one immediately took responsibility for what has been one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistan in recent years.
Attacks on Shiite worship places are not uncommon in Pakistan, a predominately Sunni Muslim nation. Militants linked the Islamic State terrorist group and the outlawed Pakistani Taliban have in the past carried out similar attacks.
“The United States condemns the heinous and cowardly attack targeting a mosque in Peshawar,” said Angela P. Aggeler, the U.S. embassy chargé d’affaires.
“We offer our deepest condolences to the victims and their families,” she added in statement tweeted by the embassy.
Friday’s attack comes as Australian cricket players are in Pakistan for a bilateral tournament series, the first visit by an Australian team to the terrorism-stricken South Asian nation in 24 years. The first match between the two countries began Friday in the garrison city of Rawalpindi under tight scrutiny.
Major cricket-playing countries have avoided sending their teams to Pakistan since a deadly terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in the eastern city of Lahore in 2009.
Improved security measures across the country have encouraged some foreign teams to visit the country in recent years.
New Zealand called off its team in September just before opening its first match in Rawalpindi, citing security concerns.