ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber blew himself up at a mosque during weekly prayers Friday in Pakistan's tribal area, the region that President Barack Obama described a few hours later as the "most dangerous place in the world." At least 50 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The attack occurred in the Khyber part of the tribal territory not long before Obama unveiled a new strategy for tackling Taliban and al Qaida extremists in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's tribal area. The bomber detonated himself just after the prayer leader cried out "Allahu akhbar" — God is great — to mark the beginning of the weekly Friday prayers, shortly before 2 p.m. local time.
The bombing was a stark demonstration of the menace that Pakistanis face, with even mosques not safe from attack. State control has been almost eclipsed from the tribal area, and government authority has been undermined across the country as the militants strike almost at will. The onslaught has left Pakistanis bewildered and angry at their government and its alliance with the West.
"People should understand that this is not a fight for Islam or to bring in sharia (Islamic law). This is an outright insurgency," said Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami National Party, a secular party that runs the provincial government in the North West Frontier Province. "There are foreigners based in the tribal area and they operate from there unmolested. No one challenges them."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The packed mosque was used by paramilitary soldiers stationed at a nearby post, who most likely were the target of the attack. Many of them were among the dead and wounded, officials said. The blast demolished the two-story mosque in Jamrud, a town near the Afghan border. The dead and injured were buried under bricks and slabs of concrete. Officials warned that the death toll could rise to 70.
Hundreds of people gathered to dig out the victims by hand, carrying many away on beds that were turned into makeshift stretchers. Jamrud, as a tribal area, has few medical or rescue facilities. Most of the wounded were taken to hospitals in Peshawar, the provincial capital, about 15 miles away. Residents took many in their private cars.
Outside the mosque, rows of shoes were lined up, removed by the worshippers before they entered the mosque, as tradition requires.
The injured arrived at the hospital blood-covered and stunned.
"Everybody says that a Muslim could not have done this," said Tariq Hayat Khan, the top official for Khyber. "This is the work of kaffirs," or infidels.
Despite Khan's comments, the bombing was likely to have been the work of Pakistani Islamic extremists, who've consistently targeted security personnel.
Jamrud lies on the road through Khyber, which NATO uses to transport the majority of its supplies to troops in Afghanistan. Although the tribal territory is a base for Taliban and al Qaida militants, Khyber used to be the safest, most stable part of the area. Extremists have struck it continually in recent months, endangering NATO supplies and imperiling the bustling city of Peshawar.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY