- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

KARACHI, Pakistan Gunmen on motorcycles stormed a Shi'ite mosque in southern Pakistan yesterday and opened fire, killing at least nine worshippers and injuring at least nine, police and hospital officials said.
At least three gunmen entered the Imam Bargha Mehdi mosque in this port city as worshippers were performing evening prayers, Interior Ministry spokesman Iftikhar Ahmed said. The gunmen had been waiting at a nearby tea shop, witnesses said.
Mohammed Ali, one of the worshippers, said he saw four persons on two motorcycles approach the mosque.
"The call for prayer had just begun, and four people on two motorcycles rode up to the gate and opened fire," he said.
Among the dead was a 7-year-old boy who died at a nearby hospital hours after the incident.
Others described a narrow escape.
"Two injured people fell on me, and because I was covered by them, I was safe," said Anwar Hussein, who ran to the scene from a nearby hotel after hearing gunfire.
The motive for the killings was not immediately clear, and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pakistan has been wracked by religious violence in recent years, most by Sunni Muslim extremist groups targeting minority Shi'ites. Often, gunmen have attacked places of worship.
Most of the deaths have been blamed on a Sunni Muslim extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or the SSP, which is outlawed by the government. A breakaway faction of the SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is also blamed for attacks on Shi'ite Muslims, and several of its members have been arrested.
Most of Pakistan's 140 million people are Sunni Muslims. The rivalry between the two Islamic sects dates to the seventh century, when they had a falling out about who should be the heir to Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The shooting came about two weeks before the start of the Islamic month of Muharram, which Shi'ites observe as a month of mourning.
"This is a conspiracy to create a sectarian problem in the coming holy month," said Hasan Zafar Naqvi, a top Shi'ite community leader in Karachi.
Police said about 25 people were believed to be inside the mosque at the time of the shooting.
President Pervez Musharraf banned five extremist groups in January 2002 in an effort to purge the country of extremist elements, but religious violence has continued and mosques are often the targets.
Karachi has also been the site of a series of violent attacks, many against Westerners and minority Christians, in recent months.
A suicide bombing June 14 outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi killed 12 Pakistanis and injured 50 others, and a suicide bombing May 8 outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi killed 11 French engineers and three others.


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