Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Curfew imposed after massacre

A TOWN ON EDGE Pakistani soldiers patrolled the streets of Quetta a day after a gun-and-grenade attack killed 44 Shiite worshippers

REUTERS , QUETTA, PAKISTAN

Pakistani soldiers yesterday patrol a street in Quetta where a curfew was imposed after an attack on a Shiite religious procession on Tuesday. At least 44 people were killed when suspected Sunni Muslim radicals attacked rival Shiites with automatic rifles and grenades as the minority sect marked one of its holiest days.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Troops patrolled the southern Pakistani city of Quetta yesterday, imposing a curfew after an attack on minority Shiites killed 44 people and 13 more died in a stampede triggered by fears of religious violence.

Relatives of victims of Tuesday's gun and grenade massacre in Quetta had to rely on military vehicles to take them to hospital, where nearly 140 people lay wounded, some of them seriously.

Soldiers armed with automatic rifles and machine guns patrolled rubble-strewn streets and burned-out shops set alight by enraged Shiites in the city of 400,000 people.

Funerals were expected to be held under military guard later in the day.

In the remote tribal town of Para Chinar, at least 13 Shiite Muslim worshippers -- eight women and five children -- died on Tuesday in a stampede during another ceremony to mark Ashura, one of the minority Muslim sect's holiest days.

Doctor Syed Amjad Hussain said the women panicked, thinking a power failure that put out the lights was instead a new attack by majority Sunni Muslim militants.

They tried to rush out of a two-storey building, causing a staircase to collapse.

About 56 people, mainly women and children, were hurt.

The attack on the Shiite procession in Quetta was the worst sectarian violence in Pakistan since a suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in the city killed more than 57 people in July.

It coincided with bomb blasts that killed at least 170 people in Iraq's holy Shiite city of Kerbala and capital Baghdad that US officials linked to al-Qaeda.

Pakistani officials have not linked the events.

Shiite leaders suspect the Quetta attack was the work of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed Sunni group with links to al-Qaeda that has carried out many sectarian attacks before.

Witnesses said the attackers' guns were painted with the group's name.

Police said two of the attackers blew themselves up when surrounded, but at least one was wounded and under police guard in hospital.

An intelligence source said the wounded suspect was a member of Lahkar-e-Jhangvi from the southern part of Punjab province. He said 13 people took part in the attack.

Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat said there was no indication of an al-Qaeda link, but added: "You can never be too sure and we are looking at it from every angle.

"The high casualties were because in the panic people started firing from all sides," he said. "A lot of people died in crossfire."

He said five policemen were among the dead.

The Quetta attack came despite heavy security with thousands of paramilitary troops deployed countrywide against sectarian violence.

It occurred against a backdrop of stepped-up military operations in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and underscored the risks posed to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in his frontline role in the US-led "war on terror."

Political analyst and commentator Ayaz Amir said the attack may have been aimed at forcing Musharraf to relax the anti-al-Qaeda operations and withdraw resources from the tribal region.

"When you want unrest in Pakistan, you are putting pressure on the government," he said. "And what is the government doing? It, along with America, is involved in a war on terror."

Quetta has long been a hotbed of Islamic militancy and has become a refuge for Taliban and allied Sunni militants forced out of Afghanistan by US-led military action.

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