ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — As U.S. officials warned of a renewed focus by Islamic miliants on attacks in Pakistan, the death toll climbed above 50 on Friday in a suicide bombing that could herald a perilous election campaign and a harsh new confrontation between extremists and government forces.
Even at the close of a year that has seen dozens of suicide attacks across the country, Pakistanis were horrified by the circumstances of this one in Charsadda, in North-West Frontier Province. The attacker blew himself up in a mosque, killing and maiming worshipers as they gathered to mark one of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar.
President Pervez Musharraf, who last week lifted a state of emergency that he said was imposed to confront the militants, condemned the attack and vowed to punish those responsible. The state-run news agency quoted him as saying Islamic extremists were bent on forcing "distorted thinking" on other Muslims.
No one claimed responsibility for the explosion, but suspicion quickly fell on pro-Taliban militants who have established a stronghold in the province and adjacent tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The militants declared war on Musharraf and his senior lieutenants after government forces staged a bloody raid in July on a radical mosque complex in the capital.
In Washington, U.S. officials warned Friday of a renewed emphasis by Al Qaeda on attacking Pakistan, a shift from the group's focus on Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that since the summer, the number of Al Qaeda insurgents and other fighters crossing from Pakistan was down about 40% in the volatile eastern section of Afghanistan where U.S. troops are concentrated.
"Al Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people," Gates said at a news conference at the Pentagon.
The apparent target of the bombing Friday was a close ally of Musharraf, former Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao. The attack took place in Sherpao's family compound in Charsadda, outside the city of Peshawar, in the country's violence-plagued northwestern border region.
Sherpao, who escaped injury, relinquished his post less than a month ago when a caretaker government was appointed pending parliamentary elections.
As interior minister, Sherpao was the senior civilian official responsible for national security and was one of the most visible symbols of the government's campaign against Islamic militants.
This was the second attempt on his life in eight months. Nearly 30 people were killed in April when a suicide bomber struck at a political rally Sherpao was attending not far from his home.
The mosque that was the scene of Friday's attack is in Sherpao's family compound, about 25 miles northeast of Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Hundreds of worshipers had come to the compound to offer prayers in observance of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, and to extend respects to Sherpao, who is a candidate for a pro-Musharraf party in the Jan. 8 elections.
Sherpao told reporters that he and his family were in the front row of worshipers and the assailant was about two or three rows behind them.
The powerful blast, its force magnified by the confined space, spewed nails and ball bearings throughout the crowded mosque.
Television channels showed pools of blood, scattered prayer caps and heaps of bloodied clothing. Nearly 100 people were injured. A resident, Gulzar Khan, described a deafening blast that gave way to screams and moans of the injured.
Sherpao, whose son and two other relatives were among the wounded, later visited a Peshawar hospital where many of the more seriously injured had been taken.
Even before the attack, the campaign for the parliamentary elections has been shadowed by fears of violence. More than 150 people were killed in October in a suicide attack on a homecoming rally for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was returning from eight years in self-imposed exile.
In the aftermath of Friday's attack, police raided an Islamic seminary in a nearby village. The Associated Press reported that seven students, some of them Afghans, were arrested, but it was not clear whether they were suspected of helping the bomber.
The attack came despite heavy security precautions. Local officials said worshipers had passed through metal detectors; it was not known how the attacker managed to slip through, particularly while carrying an estimated 15 pounds of explosives.
The dead were buried within hours in graves dug next to the mosque where they died.
Police and paramilitary troops took up positions outside the Sherpao compound, and security was tightened at mosques in Peshawar and elsewhere.
Gates, in warning of the new Al Qaeda focus on Pakistan, did not detail possible reasons for the shift.