KARACHI: A suicide bomber on Monday struck Pakistan’s largest procession of Shia Muslims on the holiest day in their calendar, killing at least 26 people and wounding dozens more, defying a major security clampdown.
The blast unleashed pandemonium at M A Jinnah Road, one of the biggest boulevards in Karachi, where angry mourners threw stones and opened fire into the air, sparking appeals from the authorities for calm.
Tens of thousands of police and paramilitary forces had been deployed, fearing sectarian clashes or militant bombings would target the Shia faithful who whip themselves to mourn the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein.
“It was a suicide attack. He was walking with the procession and he blew himself up,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a private television, appealing on the Shia community to suspend their commemorations.
“This pattern shows that this was a joint venture between Tehreek-i-Taliban and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi,” Malik said, referring to two of Pakistan’s most potent militant networks.
Ambulances raced through the streets, ferrying the casualties to hospitals, where state television said medics declared a state of emergency.
According to Inspector General (IG) Sindh, at least 26 people were martyred and more than 70 wounded in the attack.
“We have declared emergency at all hospitals in Karachi and doctors are making every effort to save the injured. The situation is very grim,” provincial health minister Saghir Ahmed told AFP.
It was the second bomb attack to mar Ashura in Pakistan after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a main Shia mosque in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, killing seven people late Sunday.
Fire broke out after the blast in Karachi, fanning thick smoke into the sky, and people were running in all directions, an AFP reporter said.
Two further explosions were heard, which could have been gas tanks exploding in burning vehicles, and mourners torched a bus, which had blocked off a road for the procession, witnesses said.
DawnNews reported that at least 50 shops and two police stations had been set ablaze. Dozens of vehicles, including two police mobiles, were also torched following the attack.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani swiftly condemned the blast and also appealed on the masses to remain peaceful, his office said.
In Karachi, the capital of Sindh, more than 50,000 Shias had poured into the streets to commemorate Muharram.
Sectarian violence periodically flares in Pakistan between Shias and the country’s majority Sunnis.
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.
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.
Small explosives planted in a gutter had ripped through an Ashura procession in Karachi on Sunday wounding 17 people, officials said.