QUETTA -- Pakistani officials are strongly condemning the November 12 suicide bombing at a popular Sufi shrine in Khuzdar District, Balochistan, launching a prompt investigation and vowing to maintain peace and security.
At least 52 people were killed and more than 100 injured in bombing of the Dargah Bilal Shah Noorani shrine, situated in a remote, mountainous part of central Balochistan, according to Balochistan Minister of Home and Tribal Affairs Mir Sarfraz Ahmed Bugti.
"It was a planned suicide attack on the Shia community [which frequents some Sufi sites], and the initial investigations confirmed that the attack was carried out by a banned outfit responsible for the sectarian violence in Balochistan," Bugti told Pakistan Forward.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) claimed responsibility through one of its affiliated sites. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, a banned militant group with ties to al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also took responsibility.
The culprit, reportedly a teenaged boy, was disguised as a woman, according to officials and news reports. He detonated his suicide belt in the middle of the shrine during dhamal, a devotional dance session held daily before dusk, eyewitnesses said.
The site was packed with worshippers who were commemorating the 500th anniversary of the saint's birth.
"Several women and children are among the killed and injured pilgrims," Bugti said.
Sectarian violence will not be tolerated, officials say
"The new wave of attacks ... is part of a conspiracy among anti-state groups trying to set off sectarian violence in our region," Bugti said, referring to recent attacks in Balochistan.
Extremist groups are trying to sabotage the goal of lasting peace in Balochistan to further their cause, he said.
"The state is very clear in its policy of dealing terrorism," he said. "We cannot compromise our security."
"High-level investigations have been started to probe the security breach that caused the suicide attack," Muhammed Ali, a senior provincial intelligence official, told Pakistan Forward. "The investigation team, comprised of senior officials from various intelligence agencies, also visited the site of the attack [November 13] and they obtained some evidence from the shrine."
"The Shah Noorani [shrine] was a very soft target for militants, and initial investigations suggest that more than 12kg of high explosives was used," he said.
The culprit "was wearing a hijab, some eyewitnesses told authorities", Ali said. "DNA samples of the suicide bomber have been obtained from the site. We suspect that ISIL might have facilitated the attack."
"On November 5, intelligence officials issued a threat alert and advised the provincial government to boost security arrangements for sensitive official and non-official buildings," he said. "We have reports that militant organisations are planning more attacks on high-value targets."
Security forces on high alert
Security forces in Quetta and other sensitive parts of the province have gone to high alert and additional security personnel have been deployed in the provincial capital, Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, spokesman for the government of Balochistan, told Pakistan Forward.
"We strongly condemn the barbaric attack on the shrine where innocent people were targeted," he said. "Militants involved in sectarian violence will never accomplish their goal. We firmly resolve that the fight against terrorism will continue until the complete eradication of terrorism from our soil."
"The outlawed groups are trying to build pressure on the state, but they are perhaps unaware that the state will never compromise on national security," he said. "We are in a state of war, and the enemy is trying to derail the lasting peace efforts in the region."
The Balochistan government is taking all possible steps to handle the militants with an iron fist, he said.
Law enforcement agencies are ardently working to foil enemy plots, he said, adding that "establishing peace in Balochistan is the top priority of the government."
United against terrorism, committed to peace
"Balochistan is going through a critical phase, and the on-going violence is an attempt to disrupt the development process in the province," Inspector General of Frontier Corps for Balochistan Maj. Gen. Sher Afgan said on his November 13 visit of the bombed shrine.
"Terror groups are targeting innocent civilians with their destructive agenda," he said.
"There are no words to condemn and describe these cruel attacks. All segments of society are united against terrorism and we will surely defeat our enemy," he said. "Peace is the primary demand of the entire nation, and the sacrifices of the general public and law enforcement personnel will never go in vain."
"Frontier Corps Balochistan is playing an important role in the peace process, and providing security to [protect] the lives and properties of people is the core responsibility of the state," he said. "The government is trying its best to foil all conspiracies against our soil with the co-operation of the public."
Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif also strongly condemned the attack on Shah Noorani shrine.
Expressing his grief and concern, Sharif said Balochistan is a focal point of anti-peace activities because of its strategic location.
"The successive intelligence-based counter-insurgency operations in Balochistan are providing positive results, and militant groups are suffering massive setbacks," he said during a November 13 event in Gwadar District, Balochistan. "We are very much resolute that one day we will eradicate militancy from our region."
Nawaz Sharif announced compensation for the families of those killed in the bombing -- Rs. 500,000 (US $4,768) per family. Smaller amounts will go to injured survivors.