ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A powerful suicide explosion killed at least 15 people and injured dozens of others here Sunday evening, shortly after a large protest rally marking the one-year anniversary of government forces' raid on a radical mosque. Most of the dead were police officers.
The blast, which appeared to have targeted the security forces, poses a sharp new challenge to Pakistan's coalition government, which has been struggling in its efforts to formulate a policy for dealing with Islamic militants.
The explosion occurred just before 8 p.m. at a police post close to a popular market and only a few blocks from the Red Mosque and seminary complex, which last summer became a hotbed of militant activity in the heart of the capital. President Pervez Musharraf, who then was also Pakistan's military chief, sent in elite commandos to capture the mosque, a confrontation that left more than 100 people dead.
The capital had been tense in anticipation of the anniversary. Preachers at the Red Mosque have employed fiery anti-government rhetoric in recent days. The mosque's supporters, including female students in enveloping black burkas, staged rallies adjacent to the site for the last several weeks.
Much of the fury was directed at Musharraf, who, though still president, wields much less authority now that he has given up his military post and his political opponents control the government. However, the mosque's supporters also have harshly criticized the country's new administration, saying it should have allowed the reopening of a controversial madrasa, or religious seminary, that became the focal point of last summer's confrontation.
Musharraf's government ordered the attack on the mosque after seminary students armed themselves and began sending vigilante vice squads out into the city, seeking to enforce Taliban-style edicts. Many moderate Pakistanis had wanted the government to deal somehow with the radicals, but were dismayed when the scope and force of the raid led to a series of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities last year that exacted hundreds of casualties.
Authorities described Sunday's blast as a suicide bombing, but it was not immediately clear whether the bomber arrived on foot or by some other means. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, and local officials quoted a mosque spokesman, Mohammed Amir Siddiq, as condemning the attack.
The blast left a trail of dead and wounded police officers in bloodied blue uniforms, their helmets, caps and shoes scattered in the street along with metal shards, broken glass and debris. Some officers lost limbs in the blast. Ambulances rushed to the scene, as did hundreds of worshipers from the mosque and bystanders from the market.
Authorities had deployed hundreds of police to secure protests held to commemorate the raid's anniversary. But the large concentration of police left them vulnerable to attack.
Militants had made threats after the government late last month sent paramilitary troops to flush out rebels from a tribal area close to Peshawar, the main city in northwest Pakistan. The deployment marked the first time the government, which took office in March, had moved militarily against the insurgents. Until then, the government had tried to make negotiations with the militants its first option.
The operation in the Khyber region, which ended Saturday, had been widely criticized as a lackluster effort, with most of the militants having fled the area beforehand. The two main warlords in the area escaped, and one of them, Mangal Bagh, has entered into peace talks using local tribal elders as intermediaries.
The U.S. and other Western nations have expressed deep reservations about Pakistan's efforts to make peace deals with Taliban commanders. North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops based in Afghanistan report that cross-border attacks have intensified since the start of negotiations with insurgents sheltering in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.