By Salman Masood and Zia Ur-Rehman

Jan 10, 2020

LAHORE, Pakistan — A bomb blast inside a mosque in southwestern Pakistan, believed to be frequented by senior Taliban figures, killed at least 15 people on Friday and wounded at least 18 more, according to police officials.

Several of the wounded were in critical condition, and hospital authorities feared the death toll could climb further.

The blast tore through a mosque during evening prayers in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan Province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing, according to the SITE intelligence group.

A local leader of a religious political party in Pakistan, who is familiar with Taliban networks in the country and spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear for his safety, said that the mosque was sometimes used by a Taliban leader, Mawlawi Abdul Hakeem, but he was not present at the time of the attack.

The Taliban and the Islamic State have battled each other for control of territory in Afghanistan, and Afghan Taliban leaders have long used sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. But Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said that no Taliban leader was present and no meeting was taking place at the mosque when it was struck with the bombing.

The head cleric of the mosque and a police officer were among those killed.

Paramilitary troops reached the mosque soon after the bombing and cordoned off the area for further investigations.

Pakistani civil and military leaders condemned the bombing, calling it an act of terrorism.

“Those who targeted innocents in a mosque can never be true Muslim,” said Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan army chief, as quoted by a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor.

Quetta has a history of sectarian and militant-related violence. Sunni militant groups there have in the past targeted the country’s minority Shiite Muslims. And a secessionist group, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, has waged a low-level insurgency for years. The secessionists are demanding more autonomy and a greater share in the region’s natural resources, such as gas and oil.

On August 16, 2019, a bomb exploded near Quetta at a mosque frequented by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. He was not in the mosque during the explosion but one of his brothers was killed.

Salman Masood reported from Lahore, Pakistan, and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.