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Gunmen kill 9 at Shiite mosque

©Associated Press
February 23, 2003

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Attackers stormed into a Shiite mosque in southern Pakistan and sprayed worshipers with automatic weapons fire Saturday, killing at least nine people -- one a 7-year-old boy -- and wounding nine others, police and hospital officials said.

The gunmen jumped off motorcycles and rushed into the Imam Bargha Mehdi mosque shortly after the call to evening prayers in this southern port city and fired upon worshipers, witnesses said.

The motive for the killings was not immediately clear, but Pakistan has been wracked by religious violence in recent years, mostly by Sunni Muslim extremist groups targeting minority Shiites.

The attackers had been waiting at a nearby tea shop and quickly fled the scene after the shootings, witnesses said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

"The government will leave no stone unturned to arrest these killers," said regional Home Department minister Syed Sardar Ahmed. He said the government will increase security at mosques in the city.

Karachi, a sprawling industrial city, has also been the site of a series of violent attacks against Westerners and minority Christians in recent months.

A June 14 suicide bombing outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi killed 12 Pakistanis and injured 50 others, while a May 8 suicide bombing outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi killed 11 French engineers and three others, including the bomber.

While the sectarian Sunni-Shiite violence is centuries old, the attacks on foreigners have caused concern in Washington, which counts Pakistan as a crucial ally in the war on terror.

Most of the deaths in the religious violence have been blamed on a Sunni Muslim extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or SSP, which is outlawed by the government. A breakaway faction of the SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also is blamed for attacks on Shiite Muslims and several of its members have been arrested.

The shooting came about two weeks before the start of the Islamic month of Muharram, which Shiites 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 Shiite community leader in Karachi. "The government should be ashamed for not protecting the mosque. We demand an immediate arrest of the killers and adequate security for all mosques."

At least eight bodies were brought to nearby Jinnah Hospital, where the boy died of his wounds, Dr. Kalim Ahmed told The Associated Press. Nine other people were wounded, two of them seriously.

Police said about 25 people were believed to be inside the mosque at the time of the shooting.

Some described a narrow escape.

"Two injured people fell on me, and because I was covered by them, I was safe," said Anwar Hussein, who said he had run to the scene from a nearby hotel after hearing gunfire.

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