PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Militants attacked an army camp in northwestern Pakistan with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades before dawn on Saturday, killing six members of the security forces, officials said.
The attack followed a suicide bombing at a Shiite Muslim mosque elsewhere in the northwest on Friday that killed 23 people and wounded more than 50, police said. It was the latest in a rising number of sectarian attacks in the country.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks. The group has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years and has carried out previous attacks on the country's minority Shiite sect.
The raid on the army camp in Serai Naurang town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province began around 3:45 a.m. local time and lasted for several hours, said senior police officer Arif Khan Wazir. The militants were armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades and also seemed to include suicide bombers, he said.
Six security force personnel were killed and eight others were wounded in the attack, said an army official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the army has not yet issued a news release. Twelve militants were also killed, he said.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to The Associated Press from an undisclosed location. He said four suicide bombers were involved in the attack. He said that three of them were killed and the fourth is still resisting.
Ahsan said the attack was in retaliation for the recent deaths of two Taliban commanders in U.S. drone strikes. He accused the Pakistani army of helping with the attacks.
Pakistani officials often criticize drone strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but are known to have assisted with some attacks in the past.
The attack on the mosque Friday took place in Hangu town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which has experienced previous clashes between the Sunni and Shiite communities that live there.
Shiites in Pakistan have increasingly been targeted by radical Sunnis who consider them heretics, and 2012 was the bloodiest year for the minority sect in the country's history.
The bomber staged his attack at one of the mosque's exits leading to a bazaar, said Hangu police chief Mian Mohammad Saeed.
The blast damaged several small shops and peppered a wall with shrapnel, leaving scores of pockmarks, according to local TV footage. Ambulances rushed in to pick up the dead and wounded, as police tried to keep back onlookers in the crowded bazaar.
The explosion killed 23 and wounded over 50 people, said another police officer, Naeem Khan. One policeman who was guarding the mosque was killed and another was injured. Most of the dead and wounded were Shiites, but some of the casualties were also from the country's majority sect since there is a Sunni mosque nearby, said Khan.
Ahsan, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack and said they were targeting Shiites.
The worst sectarian violence in Pakistan in recent years has been in southwestern Baluchistan province, which has the largest concentration of Shiites in the country. A twin bombing last month at a billiards hall in the provincial capital, Quetta, killed 86 people, most of them Shiites.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 Shiites were killed in targeted attacks in Pakistan in 2012, including over 120 in Baluchistan.
Sectarian militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have increased their strength through alliances with al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for the past several years.
Rights organizations have criticized the Pakistani government for not doing enough to crack down on the attacks against Shiites.
Pakistan's intelligence agencies helped nurture Sunni militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the 1980s, to counter a perceived threat from neighboring Iran, which is mostly Shiite. Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in 2001, but the group continues to operate fairly freely.
Associated Press writers Hussain Afzal in Parachinar, Pakistan, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.