By Aamir Latif and Islamuddin Sajid
At least eight people were killed and 44 injured, including women and children, when a church in southwestern Pakistan was stormed by heavily armed militants on Sunday, officials and local media reported.
The blast took place at 12 noon (0700GMT) when some 400 people were attending Sunday services at a church in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern Balochistan province, said Abdul Razzak Cheema, the province’s police chief.
Nine of the injured are in critical condition, according to a spokesman of the civil hospital in Quetta.
When four militants stormed the church, one blew himself up at the entrance, and another was shot dead by security forces, said Cheema.
Two escaped, and following an operation to rescue the churchgoers, efforts are underway to apprehend the fugitives, he added.
Footage on local Geo News showed security forces rescuing women and children amid the sounds of shots being fired, and also showed people cowering in nearby streets for shelter.
A female eyewitness told reporters that the blast occurred when people were in the middle of services. The attack came as Pakistan's tiny Christian community has been preparing to celebrate Christmas.
In a statement, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi strongly condemned the attack, decrying how terrorists always target innocents.
"Terrorists have no religion, we will not allow them to disturb our peace and values, and they will be dealt with by the full might of the state," Abbasi said in a statement issued by his office.
The premier also expressed deep grief and sorrow over the loss of lives in the attack.
Sarfaraz Bugti, Balochistan's interior minister, praised the police and other security personnel for their prompt and timely action in rescuing hundreds of people trapped inside the church.
"God forbid, if the terrorists had succeeded in their plans, more than 400 precious lives would have been endangered," Bugti wrote on Twitter.
In September 2013, in Peshawar, northwest Pakistan, a twin suicide bomb attack at All Saints Church killed some 127 people and injured over 250, in the deadliest attack on Pakistan's Christian community in the nation's history.
Turkey on Sunday strongly condemned the terror attack.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said: "We condemn this terrorist attack and convey our condolences to the friendly and brotherly Government and people of Pakistan."
* Meryem Goktas contributed to this report from Ankara.