- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2012

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide attacker on a motorcycle blew himself up in a market in a Pakistani town close to the Afghan border on Friday, killing 23 Shiite Muslims and wounding 50 people, officials said.

After the blasts in Parachinar town in Kurram region, security officials fired on people who took to the streets to protest, killing three of them, said local government administrator Wajid Ali.

Violence by Sunni extremists against Shiites is common in Pakistan, a Muslim country dominated by Sunnis but home to a sizable Shiite minority. Kurram is the only region along the Afghan border that has a majority of Shiites, and has seen bloody outbreaks of sectarian violence in recent years.

Sunni extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban often believe Shiites are infidels and that it is permissible or even praiseworthy to kill them. The emergence of those groups in the country over the last 10 years has added to the frequency and viciousness of attacks against Shiites.

Local government administrator Wajid Ali said the bomber struck in a market in the northwestern town of Parachinar.

Many of the 23 dead were shoppers or people with stalls in the market, he said.

A local Taliban commander, Fazal Saeed Haqqani, claimed responsibility for the attack in a call to local journalists.

He justified the attack by saying that Shiites had been attacking Sunnis.

Most of the victims of sectarian violence in Kurram have been Shiites. For much of the past five years, Parachinar has been effectively cut of from the rest of Pakistan because the main road leading out of it passed through territory controlled by Sunni extremists. People in the town had to travel by way of Afghanistan and then back into Pakistan to reach other parts of the country.

Pakistan has seen hundreds of suicide attacks over the last five years, mostly by militants in the northwest who have given haven to al Qaeda operatives and insurgents fighting in Afghanistan. The army has responded with several offensives, but have had limited success in a country where extremists have significant support among the population.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan.

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