The death toll from a suicide bombing at a mosque in north-western Pakistan has risen to 88, officials said on Tuesday.
More than 150 people were injured in the attack on a Sunni mosque inside a major police facility in Peshawar, which was one of the deadliest on Pakistani security forces in recent years.
Some 300 worshippers were praying in the mosque, with more approaching, when the bomber set off his explosives vest on Monday morning.
The blast ripped through the building, killing and injuring dozens of people and also blowing off part of the roof.
What was left of the roof then caved in, injuring many more, according to police officer Zafar Khan.
Rescuers had to remove mounds of debris to reach worshippers still trapped under the rubble.
More bodies were retrieved overnight and early on Tuesday, according to Mohammad Asim, a government hospital spokesman in Peshawar, and several of those critically injured died.
“Most of them were policemen,” he said of the victims.
Chief rescue official Bilal Faizi said rescue teams were still working at the site on Tuesday as more people are believed to be trapped inside.
Mourners were burying the victims at different graveyards in the city and elsewhere.
It was not clear how the bomber was able to slip into the walled compound in a high-security zone with other government buildings and get to the mosque – an indication of a major security lapse.
An investigation will show “how the terrorist entered the mosque” said Ghulam Ali, the provincial governor in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is the capital.
“Yes, it was a security lapse,” he added.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited a hospital in Peshawar after the bombing and vowed “stern action” against those behind the attack.
“The sheer scale of the human tragedy is unimaginable. This is no less than an attack on Pakistan,” he tweeted.
He expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, saying their pain ”cannot be described in words”.
While the pain of the grieving families cannot be described in words, I express my heartfelt condolences & most sincere sympathies. My message to the perpetrators of today's despicable incident is that you can't underestimate the resolve of our people. https://t.co/edUJ6SbP3M— Shehbaz Sharif (@CMShehbaz) January 30, 2023
Authorities have not determined who was behind the bombing.
Shortly after the explosion, Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander for the Pakistani Taliban – also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP – claimed responsibility for the attack in a post on Twitter.
But hours later, TTP spokesman Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it is not its policy to target mosques, seminaries and religious places, adding that those taking part in such acts could face punitive action under TTP’s policy.
His statement did not address why a TTP commander had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Pakistan, which is mostly Sunni Muslim, has seen a surge in militant attacks since November, when the Pakistani Taliban ended their ceasefire with government forces.
Earlier this month, the group claimed one of its members shot and killed two intelligence officers, including the director of the counter-terrorism wing of the country’s military-based spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence.
Security officials said on Monday that the gunman had been traced and killed in a shootout in the north-west, near the Afghan border.
The TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban. It has waged an insurgency in Pakistan in the past 15 years, seeking stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province it has long used as its base.
The Pakistani Taliban are the dominant militant group in the province, and Peshawar has been the scene of frequent attacks.
In 2014, a Pakistani Taliban faction attacked an army-run school in Peshawar and killed 154, mostly schoolchildren.
The regional affiliate of the Islamic State group has also been behind deadly attacks in Pakistan in recent years.
Overall, violence increased since the Afghan Taliban seized power in neighbouring Afghanistan in August 2021, as US and Nato troops pulled out of the country after 20 years of war.
The Pakistani government’s truce with the TTP ended as the country was still contending with unprecedented flooding last summer that killed 1,739 people, destroyed more than two million homes, and at one point submerged as much as a third of the country.
The Taliban-run Afghan Foreign Ministry said it was “saddened to learn that numerous people lost their lives” in Peshawar and condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on a visit to the Middle East, tweeted his condolences, saying the bombing in Peshawar was a “horrific attack”.
“Terrorism for any reason at any place is indefensible,” he said.
Worshipers at a mosque in Peshawar endured a horrific attack today, which killed and injured many. Terrorism for any reason at any place is indefensible. I extend my deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims. https://t.co/bPvvcKdwfN— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 30, 2023
Condemnation also came from the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, as well as the US Embassy, which said the “United States stands with Pakistan in condemning all forms of terrorism”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the bombing “particularly abhorrent” for targeting a place of worship, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Cash-strapped Pakistan faces a severe economic crisis and is seeking a crucial instalment of 1.1 billion US dollars (£888.5 million) from the International Monetary Fund – part of its 6 billion dollar (£4.9 billion) bailout package – to avoid default.
Talks with the IMF on reviving the bailout have stalled in the past months.
Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan also expressed his condolences, calling the bombing a “terrorist suicide attack”.
Mr Sharif’s government came to power in April after Mr Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
Mr Khan has since campaigned for early elections, claiming his ousting was illegal and part of a plot backed by the US, but Washington and Mr Sharif have dismissed his claims.