Pakistan braces for blasts as Shiites mark Ashura

Pakistan braces for blasts as Shiites mark Ashura

By | 2009-12-28T04:09:00+00:00 December 28th, 2009|News|0 Comments

Millions of Pakistani Shiites commemorated Ashura on Monday, with security forces braced for possible sectarian clashes and militant bombings after a suicide attack killed seven people at a mosque.

Pakistan deployed tens of thousands of police and paramilitary forces, and put the army on standby to protect mass processions of Shiite faithful who whip themselves to mourn the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein.

Marking a bloody start to the holiest day on the Shiite Muslim calendar, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Sunday outside a main Shiite mosque in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, killing three policemen and four civilians.

Sectarian violence periodically flares in Pakistan between Shiites, who beat their chests and whip their backs with chains in religious fervor, and the country’s majority Sunnis, who oppose the public display of grief.

Security challenges

The blast underscored security challenges facing U.S. ally Pakistan, which is already struggling against al Qaeda-linked militants and is under U.S. pressure to help stabilize Afghanistan, where a Taliban insurgency is raging.

Security has plummeted over the last two and a half years in Pakistan, where militant attacks have killed more than 2,700 people since July 2007.

Sunday’s bomber tried to enter the Imambargah mosque in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan’s zone in the divided Himalayan region, over which nuclear rivals India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.

"The death toll has reached seven in the suicide blast. Two people died overnight in hospital," said deputy Muzaffarabad commissioner Chaudhry Imtiaz.

"There are three policemen and four civilians among the dead," police official Rashid Shah told AFP.

In the financial capital Karachi, explosives planted in a gutter ripped through an Ashura procession on Sunday. wounding 17 people, officials said.

After daybreak on Monday, thousands of black-clad people marched through Muzaffarabad, the southwestern city Quetta and the northwestern city Peshawar, to commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680.

Reciting elegies and hymns, participants carried black banners and marched behind replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb in Iraq, whipping their backs.

Sectarian violence

Shiites account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s mostly Sunni Muslim population of 167 million. More than 4,000 people have died in outbreaks of sectarian violence in Pakistan since the late 1980s.

In Quetta, where dozens of people were killed during an Ashura attack in 2004, police said everything was being done to safeguard the procession.

"We have deployed some 7,000 policemen backed by 3,000 paramilitary. The army is on standby," said Shahid Nizam Durrani, a senior police officer.

In Peshawar, where 18 bombings linked to the Taliban have struck in three months, police said the city was shut down in a bid to prevent attacks.

The United States, grappling with a resurgent in Afghanistan, is pushing Pakistan hard to root out militants who attack across the border into Afghanistan. It has also intensified pilotless drone attacks on militants in northwest Pakistan.

Pakistan officially objects to the drone strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and the civilian casualties they sometimes inflict inflame public anger. But U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Pakistan that allows its leaders to decry them in public.

Earlier in the day, police said militants apparently seeking revenge for a government offensive against them, blew up the house of a district government official in the Kurram region on the Afghan border, killing him and five of his family members.