Pak on alert after religious violence kills 31
Hundreds of Pakistani troops patrolled the town after at least 31 people died in a suspected suicide attack.india Updated: Feb 10, 2006 14:06 IST
Hundreds of Pakistani troops patrolled this simmering northwestern town on Friday after at least 31 people died in a suspected suicide attack on a Shi'ite Muslim ceremony and in ensuing riots.
Security was high across Pakistan amid fears that Thursday's bloodshed in remote Hangu could stoke up tensions between the rest of the country's Sunnis and Shi'ites, who have a long history of sectarian clashes.
The attack targeted a procession celebrating the Ashura festival, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar, which marks the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson.
Officials said at least 24 people died in the bombing and a subsequent rampage by enraged Shi'ite mobs, while gunmen shot dead four bus passengers and four lorry drivers in related incidents just outside Hangu.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in a statement that federal security services and the army took "immediate steps" to control the unrest and were continuing to help the provincial government in restore law and order.
Aziz appealed for calm, adding that "sectarian harmony, tolerance, brotherhood and unity is the need of the hour."
But police said late Thursday that they were only just bringing Hangu under control despite the deployment of Army and paramilitary forces and added that the situation was still tense.
Sporadic gunfire rang out here on Thursday while fires from shops and cars torched by the Shiite mob cast a pall of smoke over the town, which is 175 kilometres (108 miles) west of Islamabad.
A leading Pakistani Shi'ite organisation pledged to hold protests after Muslim Friday prayers, a traditional flashpoint in Pakistan with hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of mosques at the same time.
In previous years, bombings like Thursday's have often spawned cycles of revenge, although Pakistani security forces have been on alert for the past week in preparation for Ashura.
Pakistan's majority Sunnis and minority Shi'ites generally live in harmony, but thousands of people from both communities have been killed across the country in sectarian attacks.
Hangu was the scene of sectarian violence during Ashura in 2001 in which 12 people were killed and the area is populated by tribesmen who align themselves on religious affiliations.
Security officials said the situation in Hangu was of particular concern because of its close proximity to Pakistan's troubled tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
Many tribesmen in those areas are divided along sectarian lines and also hold to ancient codes of honour that enshrine the right to vengeance.
Tensions are already high in the tribal region following a botched US airstrike targeting Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri in January that residents said missed its target and killed 18 civilians.
Thousands of tribesmen also joined international protests earlier this week over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which were published in various newspapers in Europe and other countries.
Meanwhile officials in western Afghanistan said late on Thursday they had control of the city of Herat following rare clashes between Sunnis and Shi'ites that left four people dead and 94 wounded.