The attack sparked a gun battle between security forces and the attackers in Garhi Shahu [AFP]
Pakistan is hunting members of an armed gang who killed at least 80 people in a double attack on two mosques belonging to the minority Ahmadiyya sect in the eastern city of Lahore.
Security forces battled the assailants for several hours in the aftermath of the co-ordinated suicide and grenade attacks on Friday, but some escaped.
The attacks targeted the Ahmadiyya sect, whose interpretation of Islam is rejected by many in Pakistan and who have been singled out by attackers before.
The co-ordinated assaults took place in different residential neighbourhoods of the city shortly after Friday prayers, police said.
The attackers, including three suicide bombers, stormed into the prayer halls firing guns, throwing grenades and taking hostages, police said.
Sajjad Bhutta, the deputy commissioner of Lahore, said the twin attacks took place on mosques in Garhi Shahu and Model Town.
The assault at Model Town was brief, and involved four attackers opening fire on worshippers before exploding hand grenades, Bhutta said.
Bhutta said the death toll at Garhi Shahu was higher because three attackers blew themselves up with suicide vests packed with explosives when police tried to enter the building.
TV footage showed that one assailant had climbed the minaret of one of the mosques and was throwing hand grenades.
The funerals of the victims took place on Saturday, as the Ahmadiyya sect demanded protection from further attacks.
Raza Rumi, a policy analyst and editor of the Lahore newspaper Friday Times, said the attack marked a “very sad day” for both the city and Pakistan as a whole.
“The way this minority sect has been hounded for the past three decades has come to such a pass that you now have acts of violence even in private spaces of worship,” he told Al Jazeera. “Their rights to worship and pray are not being adhered to.”
“Since the late 19th century, their founder declared himself to be a messiah or prophet of sorts. In Islam, the finality of Prophet Muhammad as the final prophet is part of the Muslim belief system.”
“So the Ahmadis were deviating from that and that has always irked fundamentalist Muslims. [However] not just moderate Muslims, but even the very devout and staunch Muslims of Pakistan do not support this act of terror.”
The attack was condemned by Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, who pledged to increase efforts to fight sectarian groups.
“It’s a reminder to the nation that Pakistan will achieve its destiny only after we get rid of the worst type of extremism and fundamentalism,” Sharif said.
“We, our security forces, will fight this menace till the end. Attacks on places of worship is barbarianism. It is a shame to cause bloodshed in mosques.”
Lahore is the second largest city in Pakistan and a vital military and political centre. It has been the scene of several attacks by opposition groups.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it had warned of threats against the Ahmadiyya community centre in Lahore and demanded “foolproof security and protection” from the government.
It expressed concern over “the increasing sectarian dimension” of militancy in Pakistan, which it called “a big security threat to the entire society”.
Daniyal Hassan, a reporter for the Pakistani Dawn News, told Al Jazeera: “The minority Ahmadiyya are not exactly considered as true Muslims, there is a lot controversy regarding it.”
“They say they had been receiving quite a lot of threats from groups responsible for sectarian violence.”
The attacks have drawn widespread international condemnation.
Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Gay McDougall, an independent expert on minority issues; and Philip Alston, a special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions issued a joint statement on Friday calling for better protection for minorities.
“Members of this religious community have faced continuous threats, discrimination and violent attacks in Pakistan,” the statement said.
“The government must take every step to ensure the security of members of all religious minorities and their places of worship so as to prevent any recurrence of today’s dreadful incident.”
The US condemned what it called “brutal violence against innocent people”.
“We also condemn the targeting and violence against any religious group, in this case the Ahmadi community,” Philip Crowley, the state department spokesman, said in Washington.
Catherine Ashton, the EU diplomatic chief, said she was “appalled”.