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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 19:06 GMT
Pakistan suicide blast 'kills 50'
Pakistani security officials search the scene of a bombing 21/12/07
Security officials said the bomber was among the congregation
At least 50 people have been killed in a suicide attack on a mosque in north-western Pakistan, police say.

The explosion tore through the mosque, near the city of Peshawar, as about 1,000 people offered prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Aftab Sherpao, interior minister in the outgoing government, was in the congregation but was unhurt. His son was among about 100 people injured.

The violence comes as Pakistan prepares for a general election next month.

President Pervez Musharraf lifted a state of emergency on Saturday, saying the threat from Islamic militants had been contained.

We were saying prayers when this huge explosion occurred. It almost blew out our ear drums
Shaukat Ali, eyewitness

But in the past week there have been several suicide attacks.

US defence secretary Robert Gates said in the wake of the latest bombing that al-Qaeda had begun to focus on attacking the Pakistani government.

Officials said Friday's attacker had taken a place among the congregation, in the second row behind Mr Sherpao, at the mosque inside his own residential compound.

"Naturally, Aftab Sherpao was the target," the politician's spokesman Salim Shah told the AFP news agency.

Witnesses said the dead included some of his police bodyguards. He later visited some of the wounded in hospital.

It was the second apparent attack on Mr Sherpao - a close ally of President Musharraf - in eight months.

Aftab Sherpao

As interior minister in the government recently dissolved by the president ahead of elections, Mr Sherpao was the country's top security official and led the government's campaign against Islamic militants.

He is running again as a candidate for parliament in the election on 8 January.

President Musharraf issued a statement condemning the "distorted thinking" of the militants behind the "abhorrent act".

Dozens of security officials later raided an Islamic school in a nearby village and arrested seven students, Associated Press reported, although officials would not say if the raid was connected to the bombing.

Children's bodies

Police said the mosque bomb contained 6-8kg (13-17lb) of explosives and was filled with nails and ball bearings.

Witnesses described a scene of carnage inside the mosque, in the Charsadda district near Peshawar.

"We were saying prayers when this huge explosion occurred. It almost blew out our ear drums," said 26-year-old Shaukat Ali.

"I lost my two brothers," said a weeping Jehangir Khan, who said he had helped retrieve the bodies of six children.


Hamid Nawaz, the current interior minister, denied there was a security lapse. "Such an incident can happen at such a gathering," he told local television.

Correspondents say that it is unusual for militants to carry out attacks during Eid.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says there has been a wave of suicide bombings in the past six months, most in the north-west of the country and most aimed at army and government targets.

The attacks are blamed on pro-Taleban militants retaliating for military operations against them in the border areas near Afghanistan.

More than 600 people have been killed, including around 200 soldiers, in violence sparked by the ousting of armed militants from the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.

In his comments, Mr Gates said al-Qaeda had "re-established itself" in the border areas.

"Al-Qaeda seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people," he said.

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