MULTAN (Reuters) - Masked gunmen shot dead up to 15 Christians and a policeman at Sunday prayers in an unprecedented attack in the central Pakistani town of Bahawalpur, witnesses said.
Christians have expressed fears they could become targets if unrest broke out in Muslim Pakistan over opposition to the U.S. attacks on neighboring Afghanistan ruling Muslim Taliban militia.
Six men on three motorcycles rode up to Saint Dominic's Church and pulled out AK47 assault rifles from bags, one witness said.
``They were carrying the bags and when they came they took out guns,'' the witness said.
They shot two police guards before entering the packed church firing indiscriminately, killing one.
Police have been posted at Christian churches since the deadly September 11 attacks on the United States that have blamed on Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, sheltering in Afghanistan under the protection of the ruling hardline Taliban.
Christians account for about one percent of Pakistan's 120 million population.
``Women were among the dead,'' said a police deputy superintendent. Dozens of worshippers were wounded, some seriously, he added.
``It is a security failure,'' Pakistan's minister for minorities affairs S.K. Tressler told Reuters.
He said the Christians of the area had been receiving threats for the past few days.
``They (administration) should have properly reacted to these threats,'' Tressler said before heading for Bahawalpur, along with minister for religious affairs Mehmood Ghazi, to comfort the bereaved families.
``It is the work of anti-state elements and fanatics,'' he said without elaborating.
Pakistan's hardline Islamic groups are opposed to the military government's support for the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan to flush out Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States, his al Qaeda militant network and their protectors in the ruling Taliban.
It was the first such attack on Christians in the region, he said. The area, south of Multan near the Indian border has a history of strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim extremists. Up to 1,200 Muslims have died in sectarian strife in the last nine years.
A witness said the police guards were asleep when the unidentified attackers rode up.
After shooting the policemen, four gunmen entered the church while two waited outside to shoot those who managed to flee, he said.
Saint Dominic's is a Catholic church but a Protestant service was being held at the time of the attack.
In 1997, Muslim rioters in southern Punjab sacked 13 churches and a school and burned and looted hundreds of houses, saying some Christians had committed blasphemy by throwing torn pages of the Koran into a mosque.
A 1986 law that makes blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammad punishable by death has been used to intimidate religious minorities, including Christians, rights groups say.
Around 2,500 people are said to be in jail or to face charges for blasphemy.
(With additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad)
Pakistan Arrests 13 for Christian Killings
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Police arrested 13 Islamic militants on Tuesday, following the killing of 15 Christians during a Sunday service in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur, a senior police officer said.
``We are sure we will break the network of terrorists,'' Arif Ikram, senior superintendent of the Bahawalpur police force, told Reuters.
He said more arrests could follow.
Police would not immediately reveal details of those detained or of what crimes they might be suspected.
Six masked men gunned down the worshippers and a police guard on Sunday with assault rifles at Saint Dominic's, a Catholic church in Bahawalpur in central Punjab province, and wounded at least five others.
Officials have declined to say whether the attack was linked to the U.S.
air strikes in neighboring Afghanistan.