Thousands of minority Shiite Muslims rampaged through an eastern Pakistan city Saturday in a riot sparked by a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque that killed 31 people.
Rioters set fire to a police station and the mayor’s office in Sialkot, destroyed several motorcycles and attacked a court. Firefighters rushed to the scene, while troops tried to restore order.
“The army is handing the situation, but violence is still going on,” said Mohammed Irfan, an official at the city’s police control room.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The violence broke out after about 15,000 mourners, beating their chests and wailing, gathered for a funeral for victims of Friday’s bombing at the Zainabia mosque, which also wounded more than 50 people.
The attack came less than a week after Pakistani security forces killed Amjad Hussain Farooqi, a top Pakistani al-Qaida operative who was a member of a radical Sunni Muslim militant group — leading to speculation the bombing was retaliation for his death.
The bombing touched off angry protests by Shiite young people Friday, who ransacked shops and gas stations and damaged dozens of vehicles. Army troops were deployed in the city amid fears of sectarian unrest despite appeals by Shiite clerics for calm.
Investigators search mosque for clues
Meanwhile, police investigators searched for clues at the mosque and questioned witnesses about the identity of the bomber. Officials declined to speculate who was responsible.
“At this stage I cannot say whether al-Qaida was involved,” provincial law minister Raja Basharat Elahi said.
Police reported witnesses as saying the attacker walked into the mosque carrying the bomb in a briefcase and the moment he opened it, a blast ripped through the mosque, killing 16 people on the spot. Fifteen others died later.
“I confirm that the suicide attack on a mosque in Sialkot killed 31 people,” Elahi said. He said 29 bodies have been identified, and efforts were underway to identify the remaining two.
“Maybe, one of them or both were the suicide bombers,” he said.
After the blast, experts defused a second briefcase bomb outside the mosque — likely saving many lives as hundreds of Shiites had gathered there to protest the attack.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaida, condemned the blast, which he said showed “terrorists have no religion and are enemies of mankind.” He renewed his government’s commitment to root them out.
In the three years since Musharraf threw Pakistan’s support behind the U.S.-led war against terrorism, Islamic militants, often linked to al-Qaida, have launched repeated attacks against the government and Western targets.
Violence directed at Shiite minority
Violence has also been directed at Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 150 million people, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.
Although the vast majority live together peacefully, there are extremist elements in both sects who launch attacks.
Farooqi, who was killed last Sunday in a shootout with paramilitary police in a southern town, was a member of the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — blamed for two bombings of Shiite mosques in Karachi in May that killed more than 40 people.
Officials say Farooqi was a recruiter for al-Qaida, and he was accused in a string of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the kidnapping and beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, and two assassination attempts against Musharraf in December 2003 that killed 17 other people.
Friday’s blast in Sialkot, 145 miles southeast of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, caused mayhem in the industrial city, where Shiites and Sunnis generally live in harmony.
“I was praying when I first saw a bright light and then something exploded with a big bang, and I fell down,” said Sajjad Anwar, 36, who was being treated at a hospital.
“I saw human body pieces hitting the walls and ceiling of the mosque,” he said.
Another injured man, Mumtaz Ali Shah, 43, said: “My mind stopped working for a while after the blast, but when I opened my eyes, I was lying among dead bodies.”