Muslim leaders yesterday gathered for a rare summit in Islamabad, as militant attacks killed 36 people across the country in one of the deadliest days of violence claimed by the Taliban in months.
The string of attacks on Shiite Muslims and Pakistani security forces underscored the immense security challenge in a country where Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked extremists bitterly oppose the US-allied government.
Twenty-three people were killed and 62 wounded overnight in Rawalpindi, the twin city of Islamabad, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are chief among the summit guests.
Police said a suicide bomber struck a procession of Shiite Muslims who were commemorating the holy month of Muharram, which is frequently targeted by sectarian extremists in Pakistan.
Police used lamps and torches to work through the night and confirmed the final death toll after daybreak, with eight children among the wounded.
It was the deadliest bombing in Pakistan since 29 people were killed in the northwestern district of Khyber on June 16 and the worst attack on Shiites since Feb. 17 when a suicide bomber killed 31 people in northwestern Kurram.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, another explosion on Wednesday that killed two people near a Shiite mosque in Karachi and attacks targeting security forces in the northwest that officials said left five police dead.
Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said that Shiites are “defiling the Prophet.” The Taliban have been fighting an insurgency against security forces since 2007, one of the chief reasons why Pakistan so rarely hosts international events.
Human rights groups frequently criticize the government for failing to clamp down on extremist Sunni Muslim sectarian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which have been accused of killing thousands of Shiites.
However, Pakistan has been determined that yesterday’s Developing Eight (D8) summit would present a different image of the country as it gathers together Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan to promote trade.
The government has said it wants the summit to strengthen its international standing and help “remove misconceptions [about the country] created in a section of international media.”
The capital was in lockdown to safeguard the event. Thousands of extra police and paramilitaries deployed. Schools were closed, yesterday was declared a partial public holiday and motorcycles were banned close to government installations.
Aside from the unrest in Pakistan, eight days of violence between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas will also loom large over the D8 proceedings.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi — who was thanked by the US for helping to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas — bowed out of the talks as state TV in Egypt said he would now stay home to monitor the truce.