Bomber kills 5 at Shiite gathering in Pakistan

AP News
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Posted: Dec 27, 2009 2:05 PM

A suicide bomber targeted a large gathering of Shiite Muslims in the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on Sunday, killing five people and wounding 80 _ a rare sectarian attack in an area police said has little history of militant violence.

Muslim militants have fought for decades to free Kashmir, which is split between India and Pakistan and claimed by both, from New Delhi's rule. But while Muzaffarabad has served as a base for anti-India insurgents to train and launch attacks, the capital _ and most of the Pakistani side _ has largely been spared any violence, as militants have focused their firepower across the frontier in the Indian-controlled portion, police officer Sardar Ilyas said.

The suicide bomber detonated his explosives as police tried to search him at a checkpoint outside a commemoration of the seventh century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. The gathering attracted about 1,000 people, said police officer Tahir Qayum. The five killed included two police, he said.

Most of the 80 injured were Shiites participating in the tribute, held every year during the Islamic holy month of Muharram, said Ilyas. Ten of the wounded are in critical condition, he said. Minority Shiites in Pakistan are often targeted by radical Sunnis.

During another Shiite gathering in the southern port city of Karachi, an explosion wounded 30 people, but authorities determined the blast was caused by gas that had accumulated in a sewer line, said police chief Waseem Ahmad. Shiites later held a protest on the road and torched three vehicles, he said.

The bombing in Muzaffarabad highlights the growing extremism of militants in Pakistani Kashmir. Many of the armed groups in the region were started with support from Islamabad. But some of them have turned against their former patrons and joined forces with the Taliban because the government has reduced its support under U.S. pressure.

The partnership is a dangerous development for Pakistan because it could enable the Taliban to carry out attacks more easily outside its sanctuary in the country's tribal areas in the northwest. More than 500 people have been killed in retaliatory attacks since the military launched a major anti-Taliban offensive in mid-October in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.

In one such revenge attack, three bombs planted in the house of a government official in Kurram tribal region exploded Sunday, killing him and his six family members, said police officer Naeemullah Khan.

Police are investigating how the bombs, which were timed to explode, were planted in the home of a government official in Kurram, Sarbraz Saddiqi, said police officer Naeemullah Khan. Saddiqi's wife and five children were also killed in the bombing and three others were wounded, he said.

The Pakistani government has pledged to persevere in its battle against the militants despite rising violence, but political turmoil threatens to distract the government as calls have multiplied for President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior ruling party officials to resign following a recent Supreme Court decision to strike down an amnesty protecting them from corruption charges.

Zardari lashed out at his opponents Sunday during his first public appearance since the court ruling a week and a half ago, accusing them of threatening Pakistan's democratic system and "colluding" with extremists attacking the state.

"It is a conspiracy to weaken Pakistan," said Zardari in a speech marking the second anniversary of the bombing death of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The amnesty was issued by former President Pervez Musharraf as part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile in 2007. After her death, Zardari led the ruling Pakistan People's Party to victory in 2008.

Zardari enjoys legal immunity while president, but analysts have said he could be vulnerable if opponents challenge his original eligibility to run for office.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Saturday demanded that all those who benefited from the amnesty, including the interior and defense ministers, should resign, a tougher stance than he has taken since the verdict was first issued.

But analysts have said Sharif is wary about provoking too much conflict to avoid giving the country's powerful military an excuse to step in and take over.

The military's leadership has indicated it has no interest in toppling the civilian-led government, but fears persist in a country where the army has ruled for the majority of Pakistan's 62-year history. The president alluded to those concerns in his speech.

"We know what will happen when there is a war among institutions," said Zardari, standing in front of a few thousand people near Bhutto's tomb in her ancestral village in southern Pakistan.

He promised a vigorous defense if threatened, saying "if anybody casts a bad eye on democracy, we will pull out their eyeballs."

Political turmoil is the last thing Washington wants to see as it presses Pakistan to target militants launching cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has resisted the call, saying it has its hands full battling Taliban extremists waging war against the state.

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Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal in Parachinar, Ashraf Khan in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.