LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) - Suspected Islamist militants attacked two mosques packed with hundreds of worshippers from a minority sect in eastern Pakistan on Friday, holding hostages and battling police, officials and witnesses said.
Some 80 people died, and dozens were wounded in the worst attack ever against the Ahmadi sect.
The assaults in Lahore were carried out by at least seven men, including three suicide bombers, officials said. Two attackers were captured. At one point, a gunman fired bullets from atop a minaret. It was one of the first times militants have deployed gun and suicide squads and taken hostages in a coordinated attack on a religious minority in Pakistan.
Shiite Muslims have borne the brunt of individual suicide bombings and targeted killings for years, though Christians and Ahmadis also have faced violence. The long-standing threat to minorities in this Muslim-majority, U.S-allied nation has been exacerbated as the Sunni extremist Taliban and al-Qaida movements have spread. Ahmadis are reviled as heretics by mainstream Muslims for their belief that their sect's founder was a savior foretold by the Quran, Islam's holy book.
The group has experienced years of state-sanctioned discrimination and occasional attacks by radical Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, but never before in such a large and coordinated fashion.
The attacks Friday took place in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu neighborhoods of Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city and one of its politically and militarily most important. The assault at Model Town was relatively brief, and involved four attackers spraying worshippers with bullets before exploding hand grenades, said Sajjad Bhutta, Lahore's deputy commissioner.
Several kilometers away at Garhi Shahu, the standoff lasted around four hours. TV footage showed an attacker atop a minaret of the mosque at one point in the siege, firing an assault rifle and throwing hand grenades. Outside, police traded bullets with the gunmen, an Associated Press reporter saw. Luqman Ahmad, 36, was sitting and waiting for prayers to start when he heard gunshots and then an explosion. He quickly lay down and closed his eyes.
"It was like a war going on around me. The cries I heard sent chills down my spine," Ahmad said. "I kept on praying that may God save me from this hell." After police commandos announced the attackers had died, he stood to see bodies and blood everywhere.
"I cannot understand what logic these terrorists have by attacking worshippers, and harmless people like us," he said. Bhutta said at least three attackers held several people hostage inside the Garhi Shahu mosque. The three wore jackets filled with amunition.
"They fought the police for some time, but on seeing they were being defeated they exploded themselves," he said. Around 80 people were killed in the two attacks, while more than 80 were wounded, Bhutta said. A breakdown for each location was not immediately available.
Two attackers were caught, and one was being treated for wounds, Punjab province police chief Tariq Saleem Dogar said. Geo TV reported that the Punjab province branch of the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility, however, such attacks often spur unverifiable claims of responsibility from various groups. The province's top executive, chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, appealed for calm.
"We, our security forces will fight this menace till the end," he said. "Attacks on places of worship is barbarianism. It is a shame to cause bloodshed in mosques." Muslim leaders have accused Ahmadis of defying the basic tenet of Islam that says Mohammed was the final prophet, but Ahmadis argue their leader was the savior rather than a prophet.
Under pressure from hard-liners, the Pakistani government in the 1970s declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. They are prohibited from calling themselves Muslims or engaging in Muslim practices such as reciting Islamic prayers.
A U.S.-based Ahmadi spokesman, Waseem Sayed, said the sect abhors violence and was deeply concerned about the attacks. He estimated Pakistan, a country of 180 million, had around 5 million Ahmadis. Worldwide he estimated there were tens of millions of Ahmadis, but said that they have faced the most violence in Pakistan, and that this was the worst attack in the history of the sect.
"We are a peaceful people and monitoring the situation and hoping and praying that the authorities are able to take all necessary action to bring the situation to normalcy with the least number of casualties," Sayed said via e-mail.
Also Friday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed 11 alleged militants and wounded three others in the Nazai Narai area of South Waziristan tribal region, two intelligence officials said. The exact identities of the dead were not immediately clear, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media on the record.
The U.S. does not publicly acknowledge the missile program. Pakistani publicly protests the strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but is widely believed to secretly aid the attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida targets. Pakistan has staged military operations against Taliban militants in its tribal regions, which stretch along the Afghan border and have long had little government influence.
Army fighter planes destroyed at least 10 suspected militant hideouts and one dozen vehicles in the Orakzai tribal region on Friday, killing at least 80 insurgents, administration official Samiullah Khan said, Information from the tribal areas is nearly impossible to verify independently, because the areas are remote, dangerous and entry to them is largely restricted.
In Pakistan's southwest Baluchistan province Friday, gunmen on a motorcycle killed four police officers in Quetta city. One of the slain officers had helped arrest militants from the banned Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, senior police official Naveed Ahmed said. But Ahmed did not blame any group for the attack, saying the investigation was continuing.
US toll reaches 1,000 deaths in Afghanistan war
The American military death toll in Afghanistan reached 1,000 at a time when President Barack Obama's strategy to turn back the Taliban is facing its greatest test - an ambitious campaign to win over a disgruntled population in the insurgents' southern heartland.
More casualties are expected when the campaign kicks into high gear this summer. The results may determine the outcome of a nearly nine-year conflict that became "Obama's war" after he decided to shift the fight against Islamist militancy from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Afghan insurgents find sanctuary.
The grim milestone was reached in a roadside bombing just before the Memorial Day weekend, when America honors the dead in all its wars. The NATO statement did not identify the victim or give the nationality of the service member killed Friday in southern Afghanistan.
U.S. spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the trooper was American - the 32nd U.S. war death this month by an Associated Press count. Already the new focus on the once-forgotten Afghan war has come at a heavy price.
More than 430 of the U.S. dead were killed after Obama took office in January 2009. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has now surpassed the total in Iraq - roughly 94,000 in Afghanistan compared with 92,000 in Iraq, where the war is winding down.
The list of American service members killed in combat in Afghanistan begins with Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio, Texas, a 31-year-old career Special forces soldier ambushed on Jan. 4, 2002, after attending a meeting with Afghan leaders in Khost province. He left a wife and two children.
The base where a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees last December bears his name. For many of the U.S. service members in Afghanistan, the 1,000-mark passed without fanfare. Capt. Nick Ziemba of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, serving with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment in southern Afghanistan, said 1,000 was an arbitrary number and would have no impact on troop morale or operations.
"We're going to continue to work," he said. The AP bases its tally on Defense Department reports of deaths suffered as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan.
Other news organizations count deaths suffered by service members assigned elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At least 675 troops from allied countries have died in the war, according to an AP tally based on announcements of foreign governments. They include 288 British service members. Establishing the number of Afghan dead is far more difficult, particularly for the first several years of the war.
The Brookings Institution, using a variety of sources, says at least 6,829 Afghan civilians were killed from 2006 to 2009, and that armed opposition groups like the Taliban were responsible for about 60 percent of those deaths.
The 1,000th U.S. death comes midway between the president's decision last December to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and a gut check on the war's progress that he has promised by the end of the year.
After a long and wrenching conflict in Iraq - which has claimed nearly 4,400 American military lives - Obama has promised not to be backed into an open-ended war in Afghanistan. He has insisted that some U.S. troops will come home beginning in July 2011. That has not been enough