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Troops patrol Quetta, panic kills 13

Quetta, March 3 (Reuters): Troops enforced a curfew in the Pakistani city of Quetta today as minority Shias reacted angrily to a sectarian attack on a religious procession that killed 44 people.

Shia leaders delayed the funerals of 32 of those killed in yesterday’s gun and grenade massacre in Quetta, demanding the resignations of the provincial local police chief and others for failing to prevent it despite heavy nationwide security.

They also charged that Shia youths detained during the rioting, but later released, had been beaten in custody. “We will not bury our dead unless our demands are met!” Shia cleric Jan Ali Shah said. In the central city of Multan, hundreds of angry Shias clashed with police. Witnesses said police detained more than 20 protesters, and used tear-gas and batons to disperse the crowd. In Karachi, Shias torched five vehicles and two shops in an eastern district.

The attack in Quetta on a procession marking Ashura, one of the holiest Shia days, was the worst sectarian violence in Pakistan since a July suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Quetta killed more than 57 people.

Shia leaders suspect yesterday’s attack was the work of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed militant group from the majority Sunni community with links to al Qaida. It has carried out many sectarian strikes in the past and witnesses said the attackers’ guns were painted with the group’s name.

Police said two of the attackers blew themselves up when surrounded yesterday, but one was under guard in hospital. An intelligence source said he had been identified as a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi member and a total of 13 attackers took part.

The attack coincided with bomb blasts that killed at least 170 people in Iraq’s holy Shia city of Karbala and in the capital Baghdad that US officials linked to al Qaida. Foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said it would be premature to link the Quetta attack with those in Iraq.

Relatives of the victims had to rely on military vehicles to take them to hospital, where nearly 140 people lay wounded, some of them seriously.

Soldiers armed with automatic rifles and machineguns patrolled rubble-strewn streets and burned-out shops set alight by enraged Shias after the attack. In another incident yesterday, at least 13 Shias — eight women and five children — died and 56 were hurt in a stampede during another Ashura ceremony in the tribal town of Para Chinar. Local doctor Syed Amjad Hussain said the women panicked, thinking a power failure was another Sunni attack. They tried to rush out of the building in the dark and a staircase collapsed.

Interior minister Faisal Saleh Hayat said there was no indication of an al Qaida link in the Quetta attack, but added: “We are looking at it from every angle.” The Quetta attack came despite heavy security, with thousands of paramilitary troops deployed countrywide to guard against violence during the Shia mourning period of Muharram.

It occurred against a backdrop of stepped-up military operations in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in pursuit of al Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and underscored the risks posed to President Pervez Musharraf in his frontline role in the US-led “war on terror”.

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