Survivors of a massive bomb attack on a shrine in southwest Pakistan have described their experience as horrific.
The attack killed dozens of people as families were ripped apart in a strike showing the expanding reach of the Islamic State group.
The blast was later confirmed to be the work of a teenage suicide bomber. It hit male and female worshippers as they were dancing and chanting at the shrine of the Sufi saint Shah Noorani. That is some 750 kilometres (460 miles) south of Quetta, the provincial capital of restive Balochistan province.
Mohammad Shehzad, a 25-year-old who had travelled in a group of 120 pilgrims, told AFP: “The pressure of the blast was so strong, people were blown away. Everyone was running, shouting and searching for families.
The attack killed 52 and wounded more than 105 and was the fourth deadliest in Pakistan this year. Stricken survivors swathed themselves in blankets and braved the cold under open skies overnight as they made their way home.
Many had travelled hundreds of kilometres to pay their respects to the saint and seek blessings. That was in line with their belief in Sufism, a mystic Islamic order that worships through music. It is viewed as heretical by hardline militant groups.
Unlike at mosques in Pakistan, which often limit access to women, in Sufism both genders are permitted to take part in many rituals. But they are sometimes separated by partition walls.
Witnesses said problems were compounded because it took several hours for rescue services to reach the remote shrine. The shrine is located on a hilltop in the Khuzdar district of Balochistan several kilometres away from surrounding villages. It has poor mobile network coverage.
A 28-year-old mechanic, Hafeez Ali said: “We had left the area only five minutes before the attack to go and cook our dinner. From our viewpoint on a hill, we could see three whirling dervishes dancing to a drummer, as hundreds formed a circle around them. Then came the explosion.
“We realised that it was a bomb blast. Two of us rushed down and saw the bodies scattered all around, mostly children. We also saw the drum beater dead and his exploded drum was lying nearby.”
Teenage suicide bomber
Sarfraz Bugti, the province’s home minister, told AFP the blast was carried out by a teenage suicide bomber.
“We have found body parts of the bomber which place his age at around 16 to 18,” he said.
The announcement lent credence to a claim of responsibility by the Islamic State group, which released a photo overnight of the purported attacker — a dark-skinned youth dressed in white tunic with a green backpack — via its affiliated Amaq news agency.
It was the second major assault claimed by the Middle-East based outfit in as many months. It followed a raid on a police academy in the same province that killed 61 people.
Militant sources in the province have told AFP that IS has now forged alliances with local affiliates including the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group.
According to the sources, they had earlier struggled to gain a foothold in Pakistan because of competition from already established groups,