PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A powerful car bomb exploded near a minority Shiite Muslim place of worship in the northwest town of Parachinar on Friday, killing at least 24 people and wounding over 70 others, officials said.
Mushtaq Ghani, a spokesman for the provincial government, said the attack took place near Parachinar's Shiite mosque, which is located near the Noor Market. TV footage showed people transporting the victims in ambulances and private vehicles.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of Pakistani Taliban militants, claimed responsibility for the attack. Spokesman Asad Mansoor said in a statement that the suicide attack was carried out by one of the group's members, Abul Durda, using a car bomb to target Shiites who the militants consider heretics.
The blast was so powerful it also damaged vehicles and nearby shops, according to government administrator Zahid Hussain. He said authorities have declared an emergency and rescuers were transporting the dead and wounded to nearby hospitals.
Kamran Ali, who was hospitalized with a head injury from the explosion, said he was sitting inside his shop when the blast took place, traumatizing him.
"My shop partially collapsed and I was unable to move for the next 30 minutes or so, and then residents brought me to hospital," he said. He said the site of the blast was littered with glass from broken windows and blood spattered all around.
Parachinar is a key town in the Kurram tribal region bordering Afghanistan and has been wracked by sectarian violence in the past. The region was also once a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban and Sunni militant groups. Although the army says it has cleared Kurram of militants, violence has continued in the region.
Mansoor and Lashker-e-Jhangvi, another banned Sunni sectarian militant group, have claimed responsibility for previous such attacks in the region, where Shiite Muslims are in the majority.
Hussain, the administrator, said Shiites were apparently the target of the latest attack.
Two doctors at the town's government-run hospital said the facility received 22 bodies and more than 70 wounded. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media. Sabir Hussain, a hospital official, said the Pakistan army used helicopters to transport 40 wounded to hospitals in the northwestern city of Peshawar. He said two victims died at the hospital.
Angered over the attack, some residents were seen chanting slogans against the government. Security forces fired shots in the air and dispersed the crowd, according to officials.
Later, the mourners marched again carrying the blast victims in caskets and staged a sit-in near the office of the area administrator. They chanted slogans calling for effective security and protection for the area's residents who have been repeatedly targeted with such attacks.
Earlier, the Pakistani army said it dispatched a helicopter along with a team of doctors to help the victims and evacuate wounded persons to hospitals in other cities for treatment.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the bombing in a statement and vowed to eliminate terrorism. "The network of terrorists has already been broken and it is our national duty to continue this war until the complete annihilation of the scourge of terrorism from our soil," he said.
Friday's blast came hours after sate-run media said Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain had signed a bill removing the last hurdle for the revival of military courts to try terrorism suspects.
The development came days after Pakistan's Senate and National Assembly separately passed a constitutional amendment to extend the practice, which has been in place for two years. A previous 2015 amendment established the military courts for a two-year mandate that expired in January.
The move to try terror suspects in military courts followed the December 2014 Taliban attack on an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar that killed 154 people — mostly schoolchildren.
Pakistan at the time also lifted its moratorium on the death penalty and has executed over 400 people since, but most of them were linked to routine murders.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's army said Friday it killed a "high-value" Pakistani Taliban leader, Mehmood-ul-Hassan, along with an associate in a raid in the South Waziristan tribal region. In a statement, it said troops also seized a cache of weapons from the hideouts of slain militants, who for years operated from the region to orchestrate attacks in the country.