22 killed in attack on Shia cemetery


Gunmen shot dead at least 22 Shia Muslims and wounded 51 others at a religious service in the Pakistani city of Lahore yesterday in what officials said was the most deadly sectarian violence in recent months.

Local Shia sources said 24 people were killed at the morning service at an old cemetery in central Lahore, capital of the central province of Punjab and home city of the Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif.

But Punjab's Chief Minister, Mr Shahbaz Sharif (younger brother of the prime minister), who condemned the shooting as a "most heinous and inhuman act of terrorism", said 22 people were killed and 51 were wounded.

He also ordered an inquiry into the incident by a Lahore High Court judge who must report his findings within a fortnight.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and police said the identity of the gunmen was not known. But they said the bloodshed appeared to be part of a wave of sectarian violence in Punjab, where rival militant groups from the majority Sunni and the minority Shia Islamic sects have blamed each other for the attacks.

The police said the assailants sprayed the congregation with gunfire between 8.15 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. local time at the Mominpura cemetery, one of the oldest in Lahore. The cemetery had only one entrance, and there was no escape route for the Shias who gather there every Sunday for prayers for the dead during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Shia activists later held protests in the area, setting vehicles alight, stoning buildings and shouting anti-government slogans, witnesses said. They also burnt old tyres on streets to disrupt traffic.

Mr Tauqir Hussain, a local Shia leader, blamed Sunni militants for the attack. No comment from the Sunnis was immediately available.

Quoting other Shia witnesses, he said three men with Kalashnikov assault rifles entered the graveyard, continued shooting at about 150 assembled people for three to four minutes and then escaped in a jeep parked outside.

He said a delegation of his Tehrik-i-Jafraia Shia party had told Mr Shahbaz Sharif three days ago that there was a danger of anti-Shia violence and that the chief minister had confirmed that a group of five Sunni militants who had escaped from jail in southern Punjab had reached Lahore.

Sectarian violence claimed about 150 lives in Punjab in 1997, including religious scholars and 14 lawyers. Sunni-Shia disputes over Islamic beliefs have often spilled into violence in Pakistan.

Shias form about 15 per cent of Pakistan's mainly Sunni population of more than 135 million but are the majority in neighbouring Iran.

Pakistan's Sunni groups accuse Iran of aiding their Shia rivals. For their part, the Shia groups accuse Saudi Arabia of aiding Sunni militants. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia deny the charges.

Last September, gunmen shot dead five Iranian military technicians and their Pakistani driver in the Punjab city of Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

The official APP news agency reported on Saturday that the Pakistani government had arranged special security for 11 religious and political leaders after an intelligence warning that their lives were in danger.