Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Two suicide bombers killed 81 people in an attack during a Christian church service in northwestern Pakistan, sparking protests across the country and jeopardizing prospects for peace talks with militants.
The attackers detonated explosives inside All Saints’ Church in Peshawar near the Afghanistan border while as many as 600 worshipers listened to a sermon, Zaheer ul Islam, the city’s deputy commissioner, told state-run Pakistan TV. The death toll rose today to 81, Mohammad Arif, deputy superintendent of casualties at Lady Reading Hospital, said by phone.
The blasts, among the deadliest of roughly 85 bomb and suicide attacks in Pakistan this year, come two weeks after political leaders agreed to initiate dialogue with militants in the region, including the Taliban. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three-month-old government has advocated talks with the groups to stem the violence and revive the country’s economy.
“We will go after those who committed this tragedy,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who said 34 women and seven children died in the attack, told lawmakers today in the National Assembly. “We will bring them to justice.”
The government regrets that it’s “unable to move forward” in its peace initiative in this environment, Sharif told reporters during a stop in London as he traveled to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. His comments were carried live by Geo network.
Sharif earlier condemned the attacks, expressed solidarity with the Christian community and pledged to provide medical and emergency assistance to the victims. Muslims account for more than 96 percent of the country’s 193 million people, with Christians, Hindus and other minorities accounting for the rest, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“It seems to be a well-planned and coordinated attack to weaken the government’s resolve to fight terrorists at a time when it’s considering negotiations with Taliban groups,” Rashid Ahmed Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in Punjab province, said by phone. “These attacks have put Sharif in a very tough spot. His offer of talks has emboldened these groups.”
Sunday school children and choir members were among the dead, according to the Peshawar Diocese’s website. All Saints’ Church is part of the Church of Pakistan, which was formed in 1970 following a union between Lutherans, Scottish Presbyterians, Methodists and the Anglicans, the website said. All Christian schools in the country were closed today to mourn the death of believers.
Religious books and shoes littered the church’s blood-stained floor while shrapnel left holes in the walls, local television footage showed. Men and women cried and shouted as volunteers carried the wounded from the splintered church building to hospitals, while relatives placed coffins with the dead in the middle of roads in Peshawar to protest the bombings.
One of the bombers was dressed in a police uniform, Sahibzada Anees, Peshawar’s police commissioner, told Pakistan TV. The attackers each carried six kilograms (13 pounds) of explosives, Geo TV reported, citing Shafqat Malik, inspector general of the bomb disposal squad.
“Those who did this were not humans,” Imran Khan, whose party runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told reporters outside the hospital in Peshawar. “I don’t think we should give up efforts to find those groups who want to talk. We need to know who wants to talk.”
The bombing is the second major attack since Sharif’s government decided to initiate talks with militants on Sept. 9. Two Pakistan army officers, including a major-general, were killed last week in a roadside blast in northwestern Pakistan.
“Dialogue with militants cannot take place in such a situation,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based independent security analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University in New York, said by phone. “They are responding to the government’s offer of dialogue with the bullet. They are viewing the offer as a sign of the government’s weakness.”
While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the church bombing, pro-Taliban Pakistani militants have been blamed for a campaign of suicide bombings. Pakistan’s Taliban is a loose group of militant and sectarian organizations that oppose the country’s security ties with the U.S., including drone attacks in the region, and want to impose their own interpretation of Islamic law.
Although the U.S. has reduced the number of drone strikes since 2011, it continues to target militants and al Qaeda operatives taking refuge in Pakistani tribal regions on the border. A suspected drone attack on a house yesterday in a Pakistan area bordering Afghanistan killed six people, Geo TV reported, citing unidentified officials.
As many 1,222 people, including 425 police and security officials and 797 civilians, have been killed in 858 terrorist attacks across Pakistan from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, according to statistics presented to parliament by the Interior Ministry this month. That included 25 suicide attacks and 60 bomb blasts.
Authorities failed to provide adequate security for the church and bear some responsibility, according to Paul Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which represents Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths. Protesters in cities such as Karachi and Lahore burned tires and chanted slogans criticizing the government’s inability to protect the church.
“Militants are trying to foment religious and sectarian hatred in Pakistan,” Bhatti said by phone. “They are trying to create chaos in this country.”
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