18 killed in terrorist raid on church in Pakistan

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At least 18 people were massacred as they attended a church service in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, yesterday in the worst ever attack on the country's Christian minority.

President Pervez Musharraf denounced the slaying as the work of accomplished terrorists, and police said they believed it may have been carried out in retaliation for the US bombing of Afghanistan.

According to witnesses, three men entered the church just before the end of the weekly service and opened fire with Kalashnikov semi-automatic assault rifles, indiscriminately killing and wounding people in the Protestant congregation.

The victims included the Reverend Emmanuel Mamih and a policeman, Mohammad Saleem, who was guarding the church against Islamic extremists who operate in this eastern rural area.

"The service was about to finish when three bearded men got into the hall and sprayed bullets everywhere," a Bahawalpur senior police officer, Supt Arif Ikram, said.

Twelve of the victims died instantly and six others died in hospital. Another five were in a critical state last night, a spokesman for the Christian community in Lahore said.

The President was joined by the Vatican in condemning the attack.

"The method used and the inhuman tactics employed clearly indicate involvement of trained terrorists of organisations bent upon creating discord and disharmony in Pakistan where Christians and Muslims have always lived in peace with mutual respect for each other," President Musharraf said in a statement.

"I would like to assure everyone that we shall track down the culprits and bring them to justice," he said.

The Pope expressed "absolute condemnation" for what he termed a "tragic act of intolerance", and sent his condolences to the victims' families.

The 40-year-old St Dominic's church in Bahawalpur had previously been run by American preachers, but most of them had left the country following the September 11th terrorist strikes in the United States, church officials said.

Sister Anna Bakhshi, the principal of the Bahawalpur convent school, said the church was owned by the local Catholic community but was being shared by a Protestant group.

She said she believed the killers had intended to attack a Catholic service, which would have been attended by a larger number of people, but were probably not aware of a change in the schedule made only last week.

Supt Ikram said he suspected Islamic extremists from any one of a number of militant groups which operate in the area were responsible for the slaughter, although police were still investigating all leads.

"Since the American attacks against Afghanistan there have been a lot of protests and people calling for jihad against the West and all infidels (non-Muslims)." He said he believed the gunmen came from one of three known groups: the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-i-Sahaba, and the Harakat ul-Mujahedin. "It could be linked to the US attacks against Afghanistan," he said.

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