Militants stormed a mosque frequented by Pakistani army officials, killing at least 35 worshippers during Friday prayers as they sprayed gunfire and threw grenades before blowing themselves up, officials said.
The strike was part of a wave of by Islamist insurgents that has killed more than 400 people in Pakistan since October. It was a bloody reminder of the resilience of militant networks despite army offensives against the Taliban in the northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan.
At least four attackers took part in the attack an inside a heavily fortified area in the garrison city of Rawalpindi just a few miles from the capital. A local TV station reported that several high-ranking military officers were among the dead, but the army declined to confirm that. City residents said access to the mosque was mostly restricted to soldiers and their families.
Witnesses said two of the militants entered the mosque, which had up to 200 worshippers inside, while others ran into buildings nearby. With reporters prevented from getting close, security forces exchanged fire with the assailants for an hour before they blew themselves up or killing them.
Nasir Ali Sheikh saw the attackers at the mosque as he walked there to pray. He said they were dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing of loose pants and a long tunic and carried hand grenades, automatic weapons and ammunition belts slung around their shoulders.
"They were killing people like animals," he said. "I couldn't understand what was happening."
The attack was the third in Rawalpindi in the last two months. In the most high-profile incident, a team of militants attacked the army headquarters on Oct. 10 and held dozens hostage in a 22-hour standoff that left nine militants and 14 other people dead.
Three helicopters hovered overhead while trucks carrying commando teams and ambulances raced through the cordoned-off area as soldiers kept onlookers and traffic away.
The attack began when several gunmen staged an explosion to break through a checkpoint close to the mosque, said Yasir Nawaz, a police official at the scene.
He said the installation included an army parade ground as well as the mosque, which was often used by military officers.
Two of the assailants were able to enter the mosque and sprayed the congregation with gunfire and grenades, said military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. He said there were two other attackers.
An intelligence official said 35 people were killed, their bodies taken to two hospitals close to the scene. Seventy others were wounded. State-run Pakistan Television reported Rawalpindi police as saying 40 people had been slain.
Violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has escalated since the army launched an offensive in mid-October against Taliban militants in the northwestern tribal area of South Waziristan near the Afghan border. Soldiers have pushed deep into what was a militant stronghold, but many insurgents appear to have fled.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.