updated 4/7/2007 12:26:54 PM ET 2007-04-07T16:26:54

Gunmen opened fire on Shiite Muslims in a remote town in northwestern Pakistan, triggering gunbattles between majority Sunni and minority Shiites that left at least 40 people dead and 43 wounded, officials said Saturday.

The trouble began Friday when unidentified people began shooting at Shiites near their mosque in Parachinar, about 150 miles southwest of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier province bordering Afghanistan.

Some of the Shiites blamed rival Sunni Muslims for the violence, and burned down Sunni-owned shops and homes. The ensuing riots left at least 40 people dead, said a security official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

“Security forces found several charred bodies from some homes in Parachinar,” said the official. However, he declined to give a breakdown of how many Sunnis and Shiites died in the violence, but added that the residents also attacked troops in the area.

Arbab Mohammed Arif Khan, secretary for law and order in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal regions, confirmed the death toll, and said the local government has imposed a round-the-clock curfew in the town to control the situation.

“People from both sides damaged each other’s property on Friday and Saturday, and sporadic clashes are still continuing there,” he said, adding that officials were still investigating to determine what sparked the riots.

Khan said they were seeking help from clerics from the Shiite and Sunni sects to control the situation.

Residents said tension had been high in the town in the past several days when some Shiites briefly clashed with participants of a rally organized by Sunni Muslims to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

‘I appeal to the government’
On Friday, Shiites were gathering near their mosque for a rally when some people opened fire on them, said Gul Jan, a local resident.

He said he didn’t know who the attackers were, or how many people died or were injured.

Angered over the attack, Shiites started burning shops and houses of Sunni Muslims, local Sunni leader Shirin Mengal told a news conference in Peshawar.

He claimed that about 400 homes and shops of Sunni Muslims had been burned by Shiites.

“I appeal to the government to send more troops to Parachinar to avoid any further casualties,” he said.

Pakistan has a history of sectarian violence, and scores of people are killed in such clashes every year. Although most Sunni and Shiite Muslims live peacefully together, extremists on both sides often target each other’s leaders and activists.

The Sunni-Shiite schism over the true heir to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad dates back to the seventh century.

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