ISLAMABAD: Millions of Pakistani Shias 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 Shia faithful who whip themselves to mourn the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein.
Marking a bloody start to the holiest day on the Shia Muslim calendar, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Sunday outside a main Shia mosque in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, killing three policemen and four civilians.
Sectarian violence periodically flares in Pakistan between Shias, who beat their chests and whip their backs with chains in religious fervour, and the country’s majority Sunnis, who oppose the public display of grief.
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 and Washington has put the country on the frontline of its war on Al-Qaeda.
Sunday’s bomber tried to enter the Imambargah mosque in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan’s zone in the divided Himalayan region, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars.
Panic erupted after the bomb blast flung a severed leg and other body parts across the ground outside the mosque, and the power went off, witnesses said.
“The death toll has reached seven in the suicide blast. Two people died overnight in hospital,” said deputy Muzaffarabad commissioner Chaudhry Imtiaz.
In 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 of Quetta and the northwestern city of Peshawar, to commemorate the death 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.
Shias account for about 20 per cent 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.
“We have sealed all the routes. Helicopters are taking surveillance from the sky. Rooftops on the procession’s routs are also covered,” he said.
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.
“We are utilising all resources. Thousands of police and paramilitary men are guarding the procession. The inner city is completely sealed,” senior police officer Mohammad Karim told AFP.
Three years ago, a bomb tore through a crowd of Shias celebrating Ashura in the northwestern town of Hangu, killing more than 30 people.