By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Islamic militants have claimed responsibility for attacks in a Christian neighborhood and outside a court complex in northwest Pakistan Friday, September 2, that officials said killed at least 12 and wounded dozens.
The Jamaat-ur-Ahrar group, a breakaway of the Pakistani Taliban faction, said it had carried out two bombings and shootings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Pakistani Christians told BosNewsLife that the violence first erupted early Friday, September 2, in a Christian residential area near Warsak Dam in the suburbs of the provincial capital Peshawar.
One bomber reportedly got into the house of Farukh Masih and started to say prayers to Allah before exploding his suicide vest. "By God's grace when his suicide vest exploded only he was killed. The family of Farukh Masih survived with minor injuries," said the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) in a statement to BosNewsLife.
Masih reportedly said that he has been "thanking God" for saving his family and him. "In the few moments we had to think we all just prayed to him for protection. By his power we have all survived and the evil man who tried to take our lives will now answer
Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa said in a statement that the attackers included at least four suicide bombers and that the military "promptly responded," killing all four attackers.
Witnesses said there was a heavy exchange of fire between the militants and security forces. The sound of firing and blasts and a helicopter hovering could be heard coming from the area at around 6 a.m. local time.
Pakistani Christians said that more bloodshed seems to have been prevented by one Christian security officer at a local church who later died. He reportedly informed other security forces resulting in an emergency response.
"It is believed the Christian security officer also held the gunmen and bombers at bay with a rifle for as long as he could, before being killed by gunfire," said the British Pakistani Christian Association (BCPA), which has representatives in the area.
"A nearby security presence on high alert and poor timing by the attackers meant security forces were able to keep casualties to a bear minimum," BCPA added in a statement to BosNewsLife.
BCPA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry told BosNewsLife that "Though in great fear of another attack Pakistani Christians have praised security forces. I hope that the sacrifice made by the Christian security officer will be praised by security forces, in tandem with their own wonderful efforts. His sacrifice no doubt saved hundreds of civilians from death and injury and leaves people mourning his death and in financial burden."
He said his group is "praying for the family" and will be "counselling them and the community and hope to provide aid where possible."
Violence soon spread to the city of Mardan where an explosion rocked a court complex. The bodies of policemen, lawyers and other civilians were recovered, said Haris Habib, chief rescue officer in the city of Mardan, also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
"First there was a small blast followed by a big blast," Habib said. The twin attacks in the northwest came one day after Pakistan's army touted the successes of its fight against myriad armed jihadist groups, though a spokesman acknowledged there was still a long way to go.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the latest bombing would "not shatter our unflinching resolve in our war against terrorism". "These receding elements are showing frustration by attacking our soft targets. They shall not get space to hide in Pakistan,"
Sharif said in a statement.
Yet, said Chowdhry, "The current government has a long way to go but are exhibiting signs of good governance towards minorities." He added that, "The fact that Christians are so often the target in terrorist plots is starting register and security strategies have improved as a consequence."
Chowdhry said that "something has to be done to exterminate both the extremists group and the pervading hatred for minorities amongst the general populace, that together make life for Pakistani Christians and other minorities in Pakistan untenable."
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, which has targeted Christians in the past, claimed responsibility within hours of the attacks.
The Islamist group, which briefly declared allegiance to Middle East-based Islamic State in 2014 but recently said it was no longer affiliated with them, also staged the Easter Day attack on Christians in a park in Lahore that killed 72 people including at least 29 children.
Christians, who comprise around 2 million in a nation of 190 million people, have been the target of a several attacks in recent years. (With additional reporting from the region).