International News

Gunmen Kill Nine Worshippers in Pakistan Mosque

Posted: Saturday, February 22, 2003 at 01:43 PM CT


KARACHI, Pakistan - Gunmen on motorcycles stormed a Shiite mosque and opened fire Saturday in southern Pakistan, killing at least nine worshippers and injuring at least nine, police and hospital officials said.

At least three gunmen entered the Imam Bargha Mehdi in this southern port city as worshippers were performing evening prayers, Interior Ministry spokesman Iftikhar Ahmed said. The gunmen had been waiting at a nearby tea shop, according to witnesses.

Mohammed Ali, one of the worshippers, said he saw four people on two motorcycles approach the mosque.

"The call for prayer had just begun and four people on two motorcycles rode up to the gate and opened fire," he said.

Among the dead was a 7-year-old boy, who succumbed to his injuries at a nearby hospital hours after the incident.

Others described a narrow escape.

"Two injured people fell on me, and because I was covered by them, I was safe," said Anwar Hussein, who ran to the scene from a nearby hotel after hearing gunfire.

The motive for the killings was not immediately clear and nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistan has been wracked by religious violence in recent years, most by Sunni Muslim extremist groups targeting minority Shiites. Often, gunmen have attacked places of worship.

Most of the deaths have been blamed on a Sunni Muslim extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or the SSP, which is outlawed by the government. A breakaway faction of the SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also is blamed for attacks on Shiite Muslims and several of its members have been arrested.

The rivalry between the two Islamic sects dates back to the 7th century when they had a falling out over who should be the heir to Islam's prophet Mohammed.

In Pakistan, small but violent groups of extremist Sunni Muslims revile Shiites as non-Muslims. Most of Pakistan's 140 million people are Sunni Muslims who have no quarrel with their Shiite brethren.

The shooting came about two weeks before the start of the Islamic month of Muharram, which Shiites observe as a month of mourning.

"This is a conspiracy to create a sectarian problem in the coming holy month," said Hasan Zafar Naqvi, a top Shiite community leader in Karachi. "The government should be ashamed for not protecting the mosque. We demand an immediate arrest of the killers and adequate security for all mosques."

At least eight bodies were brought to nearby Jinnah Hospital, where the boy died of his wounds, Dr. Kalim Ahmed told The Associated Press. Nine other people were injured, two of them seriously.

Police said about 25 people were believed to be inside the mosque at the time of the shooting.

Hundreds of relatives and friends of the victims gathered outside the hospital, many crying and beating their chests in anguish. Men who had carried some of the victims stood around, their clothing covered in blood. Many angrily shouted that they wanted the bodies returned home.

The victims were largely from areas of northern Pakistan, fellow worshippers and relatives said.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf banned five extremist groups in January 2002 in an effort to purge the country of extremist elements, but religious violence has continued and mosques often are the targets.

Karachi also has been the site of a series of violent attacks, many against Westerners and minority Christians, in recent months.

A June 14 suicide bombing outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi killed 12 Pakistanis and injured 50 others, while a May 8 suicide bombing outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi killed 11 French engineers and three other people, including the bomber.



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