A suicide attacker detonated a bomb among police on guard near a Shiite Muslim mosque in this northwestern Pakistani city Saturday, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 30, police said.
The attack came as Pakistan’s minority Shiites started to commemorate their most important religious festival, Ashoura, often a target of sectarian violence. Paramilitary forces in armored vehicles were deployed to patrol Peshawar after the bombing.
The blast went off in a bazaar area about 200 yards from a mosque that was the starting point for the Shiite procession. It caused a power outage that left the city center in darkness, complicating rescue efforts.
Police official Aziz Khan said 15 people were killed and more than 30 wounded. Most of the victims were police and municipal officials who were clearing the route for the Shiite procession. The city’s police chief, Malik Saab, was among the dead, said provincial police chief Sharif Virk.
Nearby, officers had to restrain angry Shiites chanting religious slogans.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion will likely fall on Sunni extremists.
Most Shiites and Sunnis in Pakistan coexist peacefully, but militant groups on both sides are blamed for sectarian attacks that claim scores of lives every year.
Sectarian strife spreading beyond Iraq?
Some fear the relentless sectarian fighting in Iraq risks igniting Sunni-Shiite tensions in other Muslim countries.
“The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq will definitely add tension here, and I think it is going to reunite sectarian elements, who have targeted each others’ worship places in the past,” said Talat Masood, a political and defense analyst.
At the bomb site, investigators found what appeared to be two legs from a suicide attacker, police officer Raza Khan said.
Police also found remnants of a suicide belt with pieces of metal and a grenade, said a senior police officer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the investigation.
Witness recounts blast
Police officer Aziz Khan said he was nearby when the bomb went off and rushed to see if his colleagues had been hurt.
“I thought my eardrums had burst. Then there were flames and the people were in panic,” he said. “I went to see what had happened to my colleagues. Many were wounded in a bad way.”
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaida, condemned the “terrorist attack” and ordered an immediate inquiry, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
The Sunni-Shiite schism over who was the true heir to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad dates back to the seventh century. Shiites represent about 20 percent of Pakistan’s Muslims, and Sunnis about 80 percent.
The attack happened as a U.S. congressional delegation visited Islamabad, about 90 miles from Peshawar. They met with Musharraf for talks were expected to touch on cooperation against Taliban and al-Qaida militants and U.S. aid to the South Asian country, officials said.