Islamabad, May 27: At least 19 people were killed and scores wounded in a deadly suicide bombing at a Shia gathering in an Islamabad shrine today.
Witnesses said the bomber walked into the Bari Imam shrine at 11.20 am (local time) while the devotees were listening to a sermon and blew himself up, killing several people.
Pakistan’s information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad confirmed only 19 deaths but hospital sources feared the toll could be as high as 25.
“The blast happened when the meeting was underway after which heavy smoke instantly engulfed the entire area,” said Naveed Shah, a witness, as rescue teams began shifting the dead and injured to hospitals by ambulance.
Body parts and victims’ belongings were spread across an area of 22 metres. The bombing site itself was stained in blood. The police also recovered the decapitated head of the bomber whose body was completely blown away. Officials said the bomber was in his mid-30s and had a small beard.
Interior secretary Syed Kamal Shah said investigations conducted so far have revealed that it was a suicide attack. The casualties included women and children, he said.
The bombing site is just 1 km from the official residence of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and close to a diplomatic enclave. Furious worshippers also scuffled with the police who tried to remove them from the bombing site.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the blast.
However, President Pervez Musharraf suspected extremists behind the attack. “My government will continue taking stringent measures to deal with the menaces of extremism, sectarianism and terrorism,” he said while speaking in Karachi.
“All these groups label themselves as armies of Islam, but let it be known to everyone that there is only one army in Pakistan and that is the Pakistan army,” he said, adding that the government would not allow any militant group to play with the lives of innocent people.
Today’s blast came as US assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Christina Rocca was concluding a visit to the country and as peace talks with India were taking place in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
The Bari Imam shrine is dedicated to Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, a 17th century Sufi teacher who is Islamabad’s patron saint. Today’s ceremony was one held annually to pay homage to him.
Sufism is an umbrella term for the mystical and ascetic movements within Islam. Many conservative Muslims oppose popular Sufi practices, including saint worship and visiting of tombs. Witnesses said the explosion appeared to have happened close to a podium where a sermon was being delivered.
Shias beat their chests in grief.
“We were listening to a sermon when there was a huge blast; Everything went black and I couldn’t hear anything,” said Munazar Abbasi, who was slightly wounded.
“For a while I didn’t know what was going on, then we got up and saw bodies all around us.” Pieces of flesh from other victims were stuck to Raja Basharat’s tunic.