- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

QUETTA, Pakistan — Attackers sprayed gunfire and lobbed grenades into a religious procession of Shi’ite Muslims yesterday, then blew themselves up as survivors scattered. Authorities said at least 42 persons died, and more than 160 were wounded.

Outraged Shi’ites rioted after the massacre, prompting authorities to call out troops and paramilitary police to quell gunbattles and arson in this southwestern city of 1.2 million. Shi’ite mobs set fire to a Sunni Muslim mosque, shops and a TV station.

“Our people are not safe at home; they are not safe in mosques,” said Allama Hassan Turabi, a senior Shi’ite leader.

The attack in Quetta came less than two hours after coordinated blasts at Shi’ite shrines killed more than 140.

The bloodshed came on Ashura, a day when Shi’ite faithful mark the death of a revered seventh-century leader by marching in black and lashing themselves in penitence.

Yesterday’s attack was one of the deadliest in years of repeated acts of sectarian violence in Quetta. Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, holds a substantial Shi’ite minority that is often at odds with radical Sunni groups.

As worshippers marched through a congested neighborhood, three gunmen opened fire and hurled grenades at the crowd, said Mayor Abdul Rahim Kakar, who was nearby at the time.

Walking among the survivors with explosives lashed to their bodies, the men blew themselves up as police moved in, Mr. Kakar said.

Two of the attackers were among the dead; the third was in critical condition.

Government officials called the carnage an attempt by extremist groups to destabilize the country. President Pervez Musharraf has become an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, earning the anger of Islamic fundamentalists. He narrowly escaped two assassination attempts in December.

“Obviously, the purpose of this attack was to create unrest,” Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed said.

Angry Shi’ites quickly sought revenge. Crowds burned a Sunni mosque, nearly destroying it, and set afire shops and the office of an independent television network that is believed to have aired a talk show that included remarks slighting Shi’ites.

Meanwhile, a shootout broke out yesterday as Shi’ites marched in the Punjab province town of Phalia, 100 miles east of Islamabad, the capital. At least two persons — one Sunni, one Shi’ite — died, and 40 were injured.

Ninety-seven percent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim, and Sunnis outnumber Shi’ites 4-to-1.

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