| A Pakistani policeman carries an injured man after the attack on the Shia mosque in Quetta (AFP)
Quetta, July 4 (Reuters): A suicide bombing in a packed Shia mosque in south-western Pakistan during Friday prayers killed at least 44 people and wounded 65, the worst such attack in recent years.
Witnesses at the main Shia mosque in the centre of the city of Quetta reported seeing gunmen firing on worshippers before at least one suicide bomber blew himself up. “I saw bodies blown to pieces,” said worshipper Khan Ali, 60, who was slightly injured in the attack, which sparked angry protests by Shias in the city.
“According to our information, 44 people were killed and 65 wounded,” said Ali Murad of the Edhi Welfare Foundation. Earlier, officials put the death toll at 32, but said this could rise.
No group claimed responsibility, but officials said the raid appeared to be the latest violence stemming from rivalry between minority Shias and majority Sunnis.
Ahmed said it was too early to say who was to blame.
President Pervez Musharraf, in Paris on an official visit, vowed to punish the perpetrators.
The attack will come as an embarrassment for Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led “war on terror” who tried during his visit to Europe and the US to calm investors’ security fears after a spate of attacks on western and Christian targets in Pakistan last year blamed on Islamic militants. Witness accounts of the latest attack varied. Worshipper Mahmood Hussain said two bearded men fired on worshippers before a third person blew himself up.
Another witness reported seeing two suicide bombers setting off explosives, while the information minister said there were three attackers, two of them suicide bombers who died instantly and a third who later died of his wounds.
Hundreds of people have been killed in sectarian violence involving Sunni and Shia militants in recent years.
Violence has worsened again this year after a relative lull in 2002.
Angry crowds of Shi'ites from the Hazara tribe, some armed and firing shots into the air, took to the streets and gathered outside the hospital where the bodies and casualties were taken.
Vehicles, shops and a wing of the hospital were set ablaze and the army was called in. Crowds began to disperse after paramilitary troops used loudspeakers to announce a curfew.
Musharraf, who has arrested hundreds of Islamic militants since siding with the U.S.-led war on terror in 2001 but still failed to prevent such attacks, vowed a tough response.
”We have to act very strong against them,” he said.
”It is unfortunate that some elements in Pakistan are undermining what Pakistan stands for. It is unfortunate that this small minority are able to derail or undermine national feelings,” he told reporters.
Sajid Ali Naqvi, head of Islami Tehrik Pakistan, the main Shi'ite political group and an opponent of Musharraf called it a ”terrorist incident” organised with the knowledge of state agencies.
”If these incidents are not halted then terrorism will engulf the entire country,” he said.
In the southern port city of Karachi in February, nine Shi'ites were shot dead outside a mosque by gunmen on motorcycles. Days later, two more Shi'ites were killed.
Less than a month ago, 11 police recruits were killed and nine wounded when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle in Quetta. All the victims were Shi'ite Hazaras.
The Quetta mosque attack overshadowed protests in major Pakistani cities called by the Islamic coalition critical of the pro-military government and Musharraf's sweeping powers.
Leaders of the bloc called on supporters to take to the streets over the disqualification of a parliamentarian on the grounds he did not hold a university degree.
Only about 2,000 people gathered to back the protests, carrying placards with anti-U.S. and anti-Musharraf slogans.