Pakistan hit by blast that kills dozens on prophet’s birthday

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At least 47 people were killed and dozens injured Friday in two separate blasts in Pakistan targeting worshipers on the birthday of prophet Muhammad, with authorities cautioning that the death toll could rise.

The two incidents — hitting a celebratory rally in Mastung in the southwestern province of Baluchistan and a mosque far away in the north of the country — raised new concerns over a mounting number of attacks in Pakistan in recent months. While no groups immediately claimed the attacks, events such as the prophet’s birthday are seen as heretical by the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni Muslim groups, who have targeted similar gatherings in the past. Baluchistan separatist groups have also been behind a number of recent attacks in the region.

Baluchistan’s information minister, Jan Achakzai, said the attack in Mastung, where at least 43 people were killed according to the police, amounted to one of the worst bombings in recent memory in the province and the regional government declared three days of mourning. Abdul Khaliq Sheikh, the provincial police chief of Baluchistan, said at least one suicide attacker was suspected to be behind the blast.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome tweeted his condolences and expressed U.S. solidarity with the country in the face of such “vicious attacks.”

“The Pakistani people deserve to gather and celebrate their faith without the fear of terror attacks like the ones today,” he said.

In photos: Blast kills dozens at religious gathering in Pakistan

Local television footage showed chaotic scenes from the blast site, as rescuers were rushing victims to nearby hospitals and covering the dead with bedsheets. Sarfraz Bugti, the interim interior minister, vowed to “use all resources for rescue and relief operations.”

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In Pakistan, the prophet’s birthday is widely celebrated as a national holiday. Tens of thousands were estimated to participate in rallies across Pakistan on Friday, with senior political figures among those who marked the holiday. Rallies proceeded Friday under tight security precautions after the attacks earlier in the day.

While authorities said the blast in Mastung was without doubt meant to hit the celebration, there was less clarity about the intended target of the separate explosion at a mosque in Hangu, a district in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where at least four people were killed on Friday around the same time.

Two suicide bombers had unsuccessfully tried to attack a police station in the district, police said in a statement, adding that one of the attackers then detonated his device at the nearby mosque.

It was not immediately clear whether the incidents in Hangu and Mastung were linked. Pakistan’s Taliban group TTP, which operates independently from the Afghan Taliban, denied that it was involved.

But the group has been responsible for a number of attacks on police targets in the recent past. Pakistani officials have grown increasingly concerned about the group’s widening reach in parts of the country. While Islamabad suspects the Afghan Taliban of harboring TTP militants, the government in Kabul denies those allegations.

The argument between Islamabad and Kabul over the TTP has shifted focus away from the regional branch of the radical Islamic State group known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province. In July, the group claimed responsibility for one of this year’s biggest attacks in Pakistan, in which at least 46 people were killed at a political convention in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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Nawaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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