Bomb attack prompts angry protests by Shia mourners

 

AT LEAST 30 people were killed and more than 40 injured in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi yesterday when a suicide bomber attacked a procession of Shia Muslims marking the holy day of Ashura.

The attacker was walking with tens of thousands of marchers, officials said. The blast, the latest in a string of attacks in recent weeks as the government pursues its offensive against the Taliban, prompted angry protests by Shia mourners.

Eyewitnesses reported groups setting cars on fire and attacking shops in parts of Karachi. Local political and religious leaders appealed for calm.

In Islamabad, a senior government official warned that worsening violence might force the government to call the army into parts of Karachi, though he also confirmed late-night reports that protests were dying down. “If there is a total breakdown, the army may have to be called, but there is a slight improvement in the situation,” he said.

Karachi mayor Mustafa Kamal said the attack was aimed at dividing Shia, about 20 per cent of the population, from Sunni.

Abbas Kumaili, a Shia scholar, said: “Muslims have to unite and defeat the force who want to divide us.”

Yesterday was a public holiday across Pakistan to observe the day when Imam Hussain, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, was killed in southern Iraq more than 1,400 years ago. Shia Muslims all over the world commemorate Ashura when large processions take place to mark the occasion.

“In spite of heavy security, obviously there was a loophole somewhere,” an intelligence official in the city said. “The arrangements were pretty tight to prevent such an attack but Karachi is a big place.”

Farooq Sattar, a leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Karachi’s main political party, said the attack appeared to have been carried out by the Taliban in retaliation for the Pakistan military’s campaign against their safe havens along the Afghan border.

Western officials say that the border region provides sanctuary for many Taliban militants who routinely cross over into Afghanistan, attack western troops and return to the relative safety of Pakistani soil.

“This attack is linked to religious extremists who are trying to destabilise Karachi in the name of religion. They are retaliating [against the army’s campaign targeting the Taliban] by attacking our biggest city,” said Mr Sattar.

After the attack young Shia men chanting slogans rampaged through parts of the city, attacking cars and shops. Mr Sattar said: “This is precisely the kind of reaction that the Taliban were seeking in the first place. They want to divide Pakistan.”

A Shia community leader in Islamabad warned that yesterday’s attack could be a precursor to more attacks targeting the community in the coming days.

Shia Muslims claim to make up one-third of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, although independent estimates suggest they account for one quarter of the population. However, there are no accurate figures, as Pakistan has never had a census which divides Muslims along sectarian lines.

– (Copyright Financial Times Ltd 2009)