Attackers strike sect mosques in Pakistan; 80 dead

Lahore, Pakistan - Islamist gunmen and a suicide squad lobbed grenades, sprayed bullets from atop a minaret and took hostages Friday in attacks on two mosques packed with worshippers from a minority sect in Pakistan. At least 80 people were killed and dozens wounded.

The strikes - the deadliest against the Ahmadi community - highlight the threat to minority religious groups by the same militants who have repeatedly attacked Pakistan's U.S.-allied government and threatened to destabilize the nuclear-armed nation.

The tactics echoed those militants have used against government, foreign and security targets in Pakistan, but they had never before been directed against a religious minority.

Two teams of heavily armed attackers - seven men in total - staged the raids minutes apart, seizing hostages and apparently planning to fight to the death. Three died when they detonated their suicide vests. Two were captured.

"It was like a war going on around me. The cries I heard sent chills down my spine," said Luqman Ahmad, a survivor.

Shiite Muslims have borne the brunt of individual suicide bombings and targeted killings for years in Sunni-majority Pakistan, though Christians and Ahmadis have also faced violence. The long-standing sectarian violence in the country has been exacerbated by the rise of the Sunni extremist Taliban and al-Qaida movements.

Pakistan's Geo TV channel said the Punjab province branch of the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility, however repeated attempts by The Associated Press to reach the group were not successful. The Pakistani Taliban are believed to have played a role in the failed car bomb attempt in New York City's Times Square earlier this month.

Ahmadis are reviled as heretics by mainstream Muslims for their belief that their sect's founder was a savior foretold by the Quran, Islam's holy book. The group has experienced years of state-sanctioned discrimination and occasional attacks by radical Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, but never before in such a large-scale, sophisticated fashion.

The attacks Friday took place in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu neighborhoods of Lahore.

The eastern city is Pakistan's second-largest. It is a key political, military, and cultural center and has been the scene of some of the most spectacular militant attacks in the country over the past year.

The assault at Model Town lasted about an hour, and involved four attackers spraying worshippers with bullets before exploding hand grenades, said Sajjad Bhutta, Lahore's deputy commissioner.

Several miles (kilometers) away at Garhi Shahu, the standoff lasted around four hours.

TV footage of the siege showed an attacker atop a minaret firing an assault rifle. At one point, he raised both hands as if in victory, then moments later ducked when bullets struck the cream-colored mosque. Outside, police traded bullets with the gunmen.

Thirty-six-year-old Ahmad was sitting among worshippers waiting for prayers to start when he heard gunshots and an explosion.

He lay down and closed his eyes as the attackers sprayed bullets around him. "I kept on praying that God may save me from this hell," he said.

After police commandos stormed in and announced the attackers were dead, Ahmad stood to see bodies and blood everywhere. "I cannot understand what logic these terrorists have by attacking worshippers, and harmless people like us," he said.

Bhutta said at least three attackers held several worshippers hostage inside the Garhi Shahu mosque. The three wore jackets filled with explosives.

"They fought the police for some time, but on seeing they were being defeated they exploded themselves," he said.

At least 80 people were killed in the two attacks, and more than 80 were wounded, Bhutta said. A breakdown for each location was not immediately available.

Two attackers were caught and one was treated for his wounds, Punjab province police chief Tariq Saleem Dogar said. The fate of the two other gunmen was unclear.

One of the detained suspects was from southern Punjab, but had studied at a religious school in the port city of Karachi, a major militant crossroads, Punjab's Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said.

Ahead of the attack, the suspect stayed for about 10 days at a center belonging to Tableeghi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group. Several Jamaat members have been on the fringes of international terror investigations for years.

Punjab province's top executive, chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, appealed for calm.

"We, our security forces will fight this menace until the end," he said. "Attacks on places of worship is barbarianism. It is a shame to spill blood in mosques."

Under pressure from hard-liners, the Pakistani government in the 1970s declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. They are prohibited from calling themselves Muslims or engaging in Muslim practices such as reciting Islamic prayers.

Muslim leaders have accused Ahmadis of defying the basic tenet of Islam that says Muhammad was the final prophet; Ahmadis argue their leader was the savior rather than a prophet.

A U.S.-based Ahmadi spokesman, Waseem Sayed, said the sect abhors violence and was deeply concerned about the attacks. He estimated Pakistan, a country of 180 million, had around 5 million Ahmadis.

Worldwide he estimated there were tens of millions of Ahmadis, but said they have faced the most violence in Pakistan, and that this was the worst attack in the history of the sect.