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Bombing rocks Pakistani mosque

Published Sep. 1, 2005

A suicide attack on a packed mosque killed as many as 47 people and injured more than 50 Friday, sending enraged Shiite Muslims on a rampage through this southwestern city. The government called in troops and imposed a curfew to try to quell the violence.

Accounts of the death toll varied, with some putting it as high as 47. Scores more were wounded in one of the bloodiest attacks in a long series of assaults on the country's Shiite Muslim minority.

There was no claim of responsibility in the bomb attack, but Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed blamed "sectarian elements," an apparent reference to outlawed extremist groups of the Sunni Muslim majority, suspected in most of the previous attacks.

Shiite Muslims immediately took to the streets, setting fires and attacking buses and cars. Girding for more violence, the government called in troops to patrol the streets and imposed an indefinite curfew on the city of roughly 1.2-million, about a third of them Shiites.

Authorities also stepped up protection around Sunni mosques and religious schools and ordered schools closed throughout Baluchistan province.

About 80 percent of Pakistan's 140-million people are Sunnis. Violent groups from the Sunni and Shiite sects have sprung up in recent years.

The attack came on Friday, the day Muslims gather in their mosques for prayers and sermons. About 2,000 people were saying prayers at the time.

In the hours after the attack, confusion still surrounded the number of attackers and their fate.

Ahmed said there were three attackers _ two killed in the mosque and one in a shootout with security guards outside. Other accounts said there were two suicide bombers and two gunmen. They said one attacker was arrested.

Zulifquar Ali, a worshipper slightly wounded by shrapnel, said the assailants first targeted the mosque's security guards.

"First they killed security guards outside the mosque. Then they moved inside the mosque and started firing on the people," he said.

A security guard killed one attacker, Ali said.

"The other attacker blew himself up," he said.

The third attacker was seized by worshippers, their clothes soaked with blood. He was handed over to police.

Other witnesses said grenades were thrown into the mosque.

Ahmed said at least 30 people were killed and 52 were injured. But Allama Mahdi Najfi, the mosque's prayer leader, said after visiting victims in a hospital that the death toll was higher.

"Forty of our people have been martyred," Najfi said.

Najfi blamed "those people who think the murder of Shiites is obligatory," an apparent reference to extreme Sunni Muslims.

The national private emergency service Edhi Foundation counted 47 bodies of mosque victims in hospitals, spokesman Mohammed Khalil said. The Edhi Foundation has emergency workers throughout Pakistan.

Hours after the blast, police found two bombs near the mosque's main wall. The bombs, which were defused, had been concealed in tin canisters, police official Abdul Hai said.

Shiite youths angry over a shortage of doctors set fire to a hospital where victims were taken but the blaze was extinguished, Baluchistan Health Minister Hamid Ullah said.

Nearly 2,500 Shiites staged a rally in Pakistan's central city of Multan to protest the attack.