Gunmen stormed two separate mosques in the eastern city of Lahore during Friday prayers, killing at least 80 worshippers of the minority Ahmadi sect.
The Pakistan Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attacks, says a senior Pakistan intelligence officer, who asked to remain anonymous. If true, it represents the first instance of a highly-coordinated attack against the Ahmadi Islamic sect, which many human rights activists regard as the most persecuted of Pakistan’s minorities.
The attackers opened opened fire with AK47s guns upon entering the two mosques, one in the posh Model Town section of the city, the other in the Garhi Shahu neighborhood near the heart of Lahore. According to eyewitness Saleem-ul-Haq Khan, a lawyer, the prayer leader at the mosque appealed for calm and asked worshippers to continue praying.
“We ran to find places to hide, it was so terrifying and the noise was unbelievable,” Mr. Khan says. He sought refuge underneath a bed in a room adjoining the building’s prayer hall, while others hid in the building’s basement and locked the door.
Elite police rushed to both mosques, ending the siege in Model Town, within an hour. The second siege at Garhi Shahu lasted four hours. Pakistani police there were initially repelled by the attackers who detonated suicide vests, according to Malik Iqbal, the Additional Inspector General of Punjab Police. Some half a dozen attackers are thought to have been involved at both sites, with the lone-surviving gunman now in police custody, according to the Pakistan intelligence official. It is not clear whether the rest were all killed or any escaped.
The Ahmadi sect has long been the focus of Punjabi militant groups with sectarian leanings, including Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad. In recent years, these militant groups have formed alliances with the Taliban, a movement traditionally led by the ethnic Pashtuns, to form the so-called ‘Punjabi Taliban’.
The Punjabi Taliban have claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks in the province in since 2008, including a suicide bombing in March that killed 45 people in Lahore.
Ahmadis aren't Muslims, according to the law
Members of the Ahmadi sect were officially declared non-Muslims in 1974 and are the generally the most persecuted of Pakistan’s minority groups.
“Since the creation of Pakistan, Ahmadis have been the focus of hatred for religious extremists,” says Iqbal Haider, co-chaiperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Last year some 12 Ahmadis were killed for their faith, according the HRCP, though those killed are generally the victim of targeted attacks. The Pakistani media is not legally allowed to refer to places of Ahmadi worship as "mosques."
The sect was founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who is considered a prophet by Ahmadis, much to the annoyance of orthodox Muslims who believe that Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam. Pakistan is home to an estimated 4 million Ahmadis.
Eyewitnesses say that the attackers today shouted a famous anti-Ahmadi slogan: "Long live the finality of the prophet."
In a statement, the HRCP urged the government to do more to provide “foolproof security” to Ahmadis, adding the group is “concerned over the increasing sectarian dimension of militancy and considers it a big security threat to the entire society.”
Last year, eight Christians were killed in a series of attacks in the Punjabi town of Gojra, an event that shocked the country.
Progress on religious freedom
In its recently released annual report, the United State Commission on International Religious Freedom praised the Pakistani government under President Zardari for taking "positive steps regarding religious freedom," including the creation of a cabinet-level position for minority rights.
But the report singled out a lack of progress in the case of the Ahmadis. And it says that "discriminatory laws, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, have fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians. Government officials do not provide adequate protections from societal violence to members of these religious minority communities, and perpetrators of attacks on minorities seldom are brought to justice."
Dr Rifaat Hussain a defense analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, says that the attacks may signal the Taliban’s eagerness to stage a “comeback” after being pushed onto the back foot by a series of military offensives in the Pakistan's tribal areas. “These were soft targets for them,” he says.