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Bomber Kills 47 at Park in Pakistan

The blast in Karachi takes place during a prayer service at a massive gathering to celebrate the prophet Muhammad's birthday.

April 12, 2006|Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At least 47 people were killed and more than 100 injured Tuesday when a bomber blew himself up in the port city of Karachi at a massive gathering to celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, authorities said.

The deadly blast occurred at an outdoor evening prayer service in a Karachi park. Afterward, angry mobs lashed out at security forces, setting dozens of vehicles ablaze, including ambulances and firetrucks, and also damaging two movie theaters.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Karachi, on Pakistan's southern coast, has been the scene in the past of sectarian violence between the country's majority Sunni Muslims and its Shiite Muslim minority.

Thousands of Sunni worshipers had massed in Nishtar Park, Karachi's biggest venue for religious and political gatherings, to mark Muhammad's birthday, a national holiday here.

Karachi police chief Niaz Siddiqui told reporters that bomb squads had checked the site in advance and discovered nothing.

"We are suspecting that the suicide bomber came to the venue along with a small rally, which merged into the gathering. He was close to the stage ... and he blew himself up when the prayers were nearing their end," the police chief said after visiting the blast site.

Preliminary investigations indicate that the attacker used up to 11 pounds of explosives, Siddiqui said.

The explosion was so powerful that it seemed to shake the entire park, witnesses reported. A local sect leader said he was lucky to have stepped down from the dais moments before the blast.

"As I went off the stage, I heard a powerful blast and there was blood all over. Most of our leaders who were on stage have been killed," the man told reporters.

The dead included at least two prominent Sunni clerics from the area.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao confirmed early today that 47 people had been killed, a number likely to rise.

"Strict security arrangements were made, but there was pressure due to a number of processions," Sherpao said.

President Pervez Musharraf condemned the blast, promising that those who orchestrated it would "not go unpunished," according to a statement on Pakistan's state-run news agency.

He directed authorities to beef up security measures at mosques around the country.

Television footage of the scene in Nishtar Park showed carnage and chaos, with bodies lying on the ground and other bloodied victims being carried off by frantic survivors.

More than 40 dead were brought to Jinnah and Abbassi Shahhed hospitals, where doctors operated Tuesday night on more than a dozen severely wounded patients, hospital officials said.

Just hours before the blast, Musharraf delivered a speech in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, calling on religious leaders to speak out against terrorism and curb the use of houses of worship as places for fomenting discord and hatred.

"We have to eliminate terrorism, and all of you should support our efforts in this respect. We have to develop tolerance and contain extremism," he said.

Religious leaders appealed for calm after Tuesday's attack, which came hard on the heels of another tragedy in Karachi. On Sunday, at least 30 men, women and children were trampled to death in a stampede at a mosque thronged with thousands of the faithful.

In February, two days of clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in northwestern Pakistan left at least 38 people dead.

*

Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Chu from New Delhi.

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