LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) – Militants who attacked a minority sect, killing 93 people in eastern Pakistan, belonged to the Pakistani Taliban and were trained in a lawless border region where the U.S. wants Islamabad to mount an army operation, police said Saturday.
The attacks against the Ahmadi community occurred minutes apart Friday in two neighborhoods in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and a key political, military, and cultural center. Two teams of gunmen, including some in suicide vests, stormed the mosques and sprayed bullets at worshippers while holding off police.
At least two of the seven attackers were captured, while some died in the standoff or by detonating their explosives.
Local TV channels had been reporting that the Pakistani Taliban, or one of their affiliates, had claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Senior police officer Akram Naeem in Lahore said the interrogation of one of the arrested suspects revealed that the gunmen were involved with the Pakistani Taliban, which has staged attacks across the country for years. The 17-year-old suspect told police that the men had trained in the North Waziristan tribal region.
“Our initial investigation has found that they all belong to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan,” or Pakistani Taliban movement, Naeem said. He said the suspect,” Abdullah alias Mohammad, was given terrorism training in Miran Shah” the main city in North Waziristan tribal region.
North Waziristan has long been filled with militant groups focused on battling U.S. and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. But as the army has mounted operations against the Pakistani Taliban elsewhere in the lawless tribal belt, many in the group, which has focused on attacking Pakistan, have since set up shop in North Waziristan.
That has given the U.S. more ammunition to pressure Islamabad to launch an operation there, whereas in the past Pakistani officials had tried to avoid taking on the web of militants in that northwest region.
Akram would not rule out the possibility that Punjab province-based militant groups played a role as well, but would not mention any specific groups. The Pakistani Taliban have local affiliates and function as a coalition or network of militant organizations.
Meanwhile Saturday, Ahmadi leaders in Pakistan demanded better government protection as they buried many of the victims. Waseem Sayed, a U.S.-based Ahmadi spokesman, said it was the worst attack in the sect’s 121-year history.
The request could test the government’s willingness to take on hard-line Islamists whose influence is behind decades of state-sanctioned discrimination against the Ahmadis in the Sunni Muslim-majority country.
“Are we not the citizens of Pakistan?” local Ahmadi leader Raja Ghalib Ahmad asked at the site of the attacks in the Garhi Shahu section of Lahore. “We do have the right to be protected, but unfortunately we were not given this protection.”
Ahmad called on the government to take action against the Pakistani Taliban.
The Ahmadis are reviled as heretics by mainstream Muslims for their belief that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a savior foretold by the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Many Muslims say Ahmadis are defying the basic tenet of Islam that says Muhammad is the final prophet, but Ahmadis argue that their leader was the savior rather than a prophet.
The sect originated in 1889 in Qadian, a village in British-ruled India. It spread into Muslim-majority Pakistan after British India was partitioned and now claims 160 million adherants in 180 countries, according to a spokesman, Aslam Daud.
Under pressure from Islamists, Pakistan in the 1970s declared Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. Pakistani Ahmadis, who number between 3 million and 4 million, are prohibited from calling themselves Muslims or engaging in practices such as reciting Islamic prayers.
Mourners buried victims of the attacks at a sprawling graveyard in Rabwa, a headquarters of the Ahmadis 90 miles (150 kilometers) northwest of Lahore. Hundreds of men, women and children wept near bodies covered with white sheets and lined up in an open area for the funeral.
In a sign of the sensitivity surrounding the sect, several Pakistani leaders who condemned the attacks did not refer specifically to the Ahmadis in their statements. TV channels and newspapers avoided the word “mosque” in describing the attacked sites, preferring “places of worship.”
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the federal government had alerted Punjab province’s administration about threats to the Ahmadi community, and that the latest warning was sent Wednesday.