ISIS claims responsibility for attack
BDS says terrorists had strapped 15 kilogrammes of explosives to their bodies
QUETTA/ISLAMABAD: At least nine people were killed and over 50 wounded when two suicide bombers stormed a packed Christian church in Quetta on Sunday, officials said, in the latest attack claimed by Islamic State in the country.
Police guards stationed at the church entrance and on its roof killed one of the bombers, but the second attacker detonated his suicide vest outside its prayer hall just after Sunday services began, said Balochistan Home Minister Sarfraz Bugti.
God Forbid, if the terrorists had succeeded in their plans more than 400 precious lives would have been at stake.
— Sarfraz Bugti (@PakSarfrazbugti) December 17, 2017
“The terrorists had weapons and it seems they wanted to take hostages inside the church. The police and FC guards present stopped this from happening,” said Bugti.
— Sarfraz Bugti (@PakSarfrazbugti) December 17, 2017
According to provincial police chief Moazzam Jah, there were nearly 400 worshippers – majority of them women and children – in the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church located on Quetta’s Zarghoon Road for the pre-Christmas service.
Jah said the venue was on high alert, adding that “we killed one of them, and the other one exploded himself after police wounded him”.
He said the injuries caused to worshipers were mainly the result of wooden splinters from the door and glass blown out of the church’s windows due to the explosion.
The death toll could have been much higher if the gunmen had forced their way into the chapel, the police chief said, adding police officials assigned to the church’s security reacted in a timely manner.
Quetta DIG Abdul Razzaq Cheema added that two more terrorists were on the run and a search operation was underway. He said the two other terrorists were neutralised in the operation completed in 16 minutes.
After the attack, officials of the Bomb Disposal Squad, police and paramilitary forces reached the site of the attack and evacuated men, women and children attending the Sunday prayers at the church. The area was cordoned off and a search operation launched.
All casualties, which included women and children, were shifted to Civil Hospital Quetta and other hospitals where an emergency was declared. Doctors said two women were among the dead, while another five women and two children were among the wounded.
The dead were identified as Mehak Sohail, Akash, Fazal Masih, Sultan Masih, Sonu Nadaf, Madeeha Barkat and a church guard George Masih. The identity of two victim women could not be ascertained immediately.
Speaking in the evening, hospital spokesman Waseem Baig said the death toll had risen to nine. He said that about 42 injured were brought to the Civil Hospital Quetta, 12 of them were later moved to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in view of their critical condition.
The director general of civil defence said that the two attackers — who officials believe to have been between 16 and 20 years of age — had strapped 15 kilogrammes of explosives to their bodies. One detonated his explosive vest, while the other was defused.
Local television showed ambulances and security patrols racing to the scene, while women and children were being led out of the church’s main gate.
Broken wooden benches, shards of glass and musical instruments were scattered around a Christmas tree inside the prayer hall that was splashed with blood stains.
An eyewitness who was present inside the church at the time of the attack said the attackers had scuffled with the church’s guard when their attempt to enter the main hall undetected failed.
“We were in services when we heard a big bang,” said Kal Alaxander, 52, who was at the church with his wife and two children when the attack happened.
“Then there was shooting. The prayer hall’s wooden door broke and fell on us … We hid the women and children under desks.”
Maryam George, 20, cried at a hospital where her younger sister Alizeh was fighting for life with two broken legs and multiple other wounds.
Aqil Anjum, who was shot in his right arm, said he heard a blast in the middle of the service, followed by heavy gunfire. “It was chaos. Bullets were hitting people inside the closed hall.”
Another witness said the church had organised different programmes to mark Christmas, according to its Facebook page and was holding a ‘Sunday School Christmas Programme’ at the time of the attack.
Following the attack, dozens of Christians gathered outside a nearby hospital to protest against the lack of security although the area was gripped by panic.
The Islamic State terrorist outfit, also known by its Arabic acronym Daeah, claimed the attack, the group’s Amaq news agency said in an online statement, without providing any evidence for its claim.
The Bethel Memorial Church has been the target of a terrorist attack in the past. Security had been beefed up for the church after the last attack, which occurred a few years ago. The church is located in the city’s high-security zone.
Pakistani Christians, who number around 2 million in a nation of more than 200 million people, have been the target of a series of attacks in recent years.
The church attack came a day after the third anniversary of a Pakistani Taliban attack on an army-run school that killed 134 children, one of the single deadliest attacks in the country’s history.
Last year’s Easter Day attack in a public park that killed more than 70 people in the eastern city of Lahore was claimed by a Taliban splinter group previously associated with Islamic State.
President Mamnoon Hussain condemned the terrorist attack and expressed grief at the loss of innocent lives. He also directed authorities to ensure best medical treatment possible for the injured. He said that the terrorists would be taken to their logical conclusion and their cowardly attacks would not weaken the nation’s resolve.
Condemning the attack, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the whole nation was united in the fight against terrorism and had the determination to confront it. He praised the security forces for their prompt response. He also expressed his sympathies with the victims’ families and wished for early recovery of the injured.
Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri strongly condemned the blast, and termed it a cowardly act. He directed the officials concerned to extend every type of cooperation to the families of the victims. Balochistan Home Minister Mir Sarfaraz Bugti and Health Minister Rehmat Saleh Baloch also condemned the church attack.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal called the attack a sign of cowardice, and said that Pakistan’s enemies wanted to spread violence in the country. “We are fighting a war against these terror elements,” he said.
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa said, “the attack targeting our brotherly Christian Pakistanis was an attempt to cloud Christmas celebrations and create religious cleavages.” “Effective response by LEAs is commendable. We stay united and steadfast to respond against such heinous attempts,” he said, according to a tweet by Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Lt-Gen Asif Ghafoor.
“Quetta church attack targeting our brotherly Christian Pakistanis is an attempt to cloud Christmas celebrations / create religious cleavages. Effective response by LEAs is commendable. We stay united and steadfast to respond against such heinous attempts” COAS.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) December 17, 2017
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mohammad Faisal condemned the attack. “Attack of terrorists on Zarghoon Road church in Quetta is condemned. Pakistan’s resolve against terrorism cannot be deterred by these cowardly acts,” said a post shared on official Twitter account of the ministry.
— Dr Mohammad Faisal (@ForeignOfficePk) December 17, 2017
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, condemning the attack, said those who targeted places of worship did not believe in religion or faith. He expressed solidarity with the families of the victims.
Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and former president Asif Ali Zardari strongly condemned the blast and firing at the church in Quetta.
In a statement issued here, they expressed solidarity and sympathy with the bereaved families and lauded the security forces on taking timely action against terrorists. They said that terrorists should be suppressed mercilessly.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan strongly condemned the terror attack. “The govt must ensure special protection for churches as Christmas approaches. My prayers go to the victims’ families and for the speedy recovery of the injured,” he tweeted.
Strongly condemn terror attack on the church in Quetta targeting our innocent citizens during their prayer service. The govt must ensure special protection for churches as Christmas approaches. My prayers go to the victims’ families & for the speedy recovery of the injured.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) December 17, 2017
National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, Deputy Speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Sindh chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, Sindh Governor Muhammad Zubair and Senator A Rehman Malik also condemned the suicide attack.
They expressed deep sorrow over the loss of precious lives and expressed heartfelt sympathies and condolences with the victim families. They termed the attack on Christians prior to the Christmas an attack on the whole country and a move to destabilise and defame Pakistan before the international community.
The United States, in a statement released by US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale, also condemned “the shocking and brutal attack on innocent worshippers”.
SECURITY AT PLACES OF WORSHIP BEEFED UP:
Security at places of worship, including churches, has been beefed up across the country after the Quetta blast.
According to reports gathered from across the country, the IGPs all the four provinces, GB and AJK have issued instructions to ensure full security at churches and other places of worships. The police in the provinces have been told that the terrorists could target the gatherings on the eve of Christmas.
CCPO Lahore Captain (retired) Amin Wains has confirmed declaring of security high alert in the city. He has issued directions to all the SPs to visit the places of public recreational personally and has also directed security high alert at all the churches of the cities.
DIG Operations Dr Haider Ashraf has also issued directives to the Dolphin Force and personnel of PRU to ensure effective patrolling.
Faisalabad police have informed that police personnel at all entry and exits routes to and from the city are put on high alert while security of church-goers would also be ensured.
Meanwhile, Sindh IGP AD Khawaja has also issued directives to make extraordinary security arrangements at all important places, sensitive installations, important office buildings, and public places all across the province.
He has also directed to further beef up all the security measures in all police ranges and at all district and zonal levels.
In Peshawar, patrolling has been increased while the intelligence officials have been asked to remain alert.
Reports from Gilgit and Muzaffarabad said that the police chiefs have directed all the senior officials under their command to ensure high alert at religious places.