HANGU, Pakistan — A suicide bombing ripped through a Shiite Muslim procession Thursday in northwestern Pakistan, sparking riots during the Muslim sect’s most important holiday. At least 27 people were killed and dozens injured in the violence, officials said.
Shiites went on a rampage after the explosion, burning shops and cars in Hangu, about 125 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad, district police chief Ayub Khan said. Army troops later took control of the area and a curfew was imposed.
Khan said 23 people died in the bombing and riots that followed. Officials reported gunfire between groups of rioters and security forces.
Aziz ur-Rahman, a commander of the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, said three men and a woman died in a separate shooting on a minibus on the outskirts of the town.
Violence also marred a festival marking Ashoura in Afghanistan, where at least five people were killed in clashes and rioting between Shiites and Sunnis in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border.
Elsewhere, tens of thousands of Iraqis marched and beat themselves in blood-soaked processions through the holy city of Karbala and other Shiite centers around the country to mourn the 7th century death of Imam Hussein — the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
But no holiday-related violence was reported in Iraq amid tight security to prevent Sunni Arab suicide bombers from striking the event, as they have done during the previous two years, killing more than 230 people.
'There was panic everywhere'
Mohammed Jamil, 25, who witnessed the blast in Hangu, said a procession of about 300 Shiites had come out of the Imam Barga Quami, a mosque, and were passing the bazaar when the explosion went off.
“I saw dead bodies and injured people crying. There was panic everywhere. Some people rushed to the injured and dead bodies, others went to houses and took out weapons and knives and kerosene oil and started setting fire to shops, destroying everything,” he told The Associated Press.
Witnesses said they thought the explosion went off from within the procession, but they didn’t see the bomber.
Akram Durrani, the top elected official in the province, said a preliminary investigation showed the attack was a suicide bombing, but he gave no further details.
The attack came despite heightened security across Pakistan for Ashoura. The 7th century death of Hussain fueled a rivalry between Shiites and Sunni Muslims over who should succeed the prophet and sectarian attacks often have marred the annual rite.
Two years ago, a suicide attack on a Shiite procession by Sunni militants in the southwestern city of Quetta left 44 dead.
Police mounted road blocks on the road to Hangu. At Ustarzai, a town about 15 miles away, police said they had orders to let no one pass, and even stopped three ambulances. Two trucks carrying police from an anti-terrorist squad were able to drive by.
An AP reporter who entered Hangu by a different route saw the bazaar was mostly destroyed and thick smoke was rising above the gutted shops. Police and army troops with armored personnel carriers patrolled the streets around the bazaar. Sporadic gunfire could be heard.
Helicopters took the injured away for treatment at an army base in the nearby city of Kohat.
Ur-Rahman claimed the situation was under control by early afternoon, and Sunni and Shiite leaders were helping to ease tensions — using mosque loudspeakers to urge the faithful to calm down.
Most processions peaceful
Other processions across Pakistan took place peacefully.
In Karachi, more than 3,000 Shiites chanting “Death to the government” staged a sit-in protest on a street of the southern city, demanding the arrest of those behind the Hangu bombing.
About 80 percent of Pakistan’s 150 million people are Sunnis and most of the rest are Shiites. The two communities generally live in peace, but extremists on both sides, who regard the other sect as heretical, often launch attacks.
During Ashoura, the most revered religious holiday for Shiites, they dress in black, weep, pound their chests and the flail their backs with chains and blades as they mourn Hussain’s death.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed condemned the attack as a terrorist conspiracy to trigger clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.
The last major sectarian attack in Pakistan happened last March, when 46 died in a bombing against a Shiite shrine in southwestern town of Fatehpur.
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