ISLAMABAD — A suicide bomber attacked a crowded Shiite mosque south of the Pakistani capital on Sunday, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more, officials said.
Pakistan has been plagued by rising violence outside the dangerous Afghan border region, including a suicide bombing in Islamabad on Saturday that killed eight paramilitary personnel and a deadly commando-style attack against a police academy last week in Lahore.
The suicide bomber set off his explosives Sunday at the entrance to a mosque in Chakwal city in Punjab province, about 50 miles south of Islamabad, during a religious congregation, said Nadim Hasan Asif, a top security official in Punjab. He said the blast killed 22 people and injured more than 30.
"The suspected man was stopped at the entrance and pushed himself in and exploded," Asif said.
Chaudhry Nasrullah, the top health official in Chakwal, confirmed that 22 people were killed and that more than 50 were injured, a dozen of them critically. He appealed to the government to send helicopters to evacuate the most seriously wounded.
Farid Ali, who left the mosque just before the attack occurred, said he felt the blast on his back and looked back and saw smoke and dust.
"I saw several people lying dead," he told Express News TV. "There was blood everywhere."
Local television footage showed pools of blood on the road in front of the mosque. Torn clothes and a pair of shoes also littered the ground. Police investigators were shown collecting evidence, not far from a car and four motorcycles that were damaged by the blast.
A policeman with both his legs bandaged and another wounded man whose shirt was stained with blood were shown on hospital beds crying in pain. A woman standing in the emergency ward of the hospital wailed, "Oh my God. Oh my God."
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack, saying it was masterminded by people who are against the state and want to give Islam a bad name.
Most of the militant attacks in Pakistan take place in the area near the Afghan border, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants have established bases and often strike U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Late last month, a suicide bomber blew up in a packed mosque near the Afghan border at the climax of a Friday prayer service, killing 48 people and wounding scores more in the worst attack to hit Pakistan this year.
But militants have also stepped up attacks in Pakistan's interior.
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud claimed credit for a deadly attack on a police academy in Punjab's capital, Lahore, last week that left 12 people dead, including seven police. He vowed to carry out more attacks unless the U.S. stopped drone missile strikes against militants near the Afghan border.
The drone attacks have continued, and a Mehsud deputy warned last week that militants would soon strike in Islamabad.
A suicide bomber attacked a paramilitary base in Islamabad on Saturday, killing eight members of the security force and wounding four others. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the second in the capital in two weeks.
It was also unclear who carried out Sunday's attack on the mosque in Chakwal. The country has a history of sectarian attacks mostly carried out by Sunni militants against Shiites.