Gunmen murder 17 in mosque

Click to follow
AT LEAST 17 worshippers were killed in a hail of machine-gun bullets after morning prayers in a Shia mosque in central Pakistan yesterday. The victims, in the remote village of Quereshi More, 180 miles south of Lahore, had just finished the prayers that precede the all-day fast of the Ramadan period when eight gunmen arrived.

Two of the men burst into the mosque and opened fire. A third stood at the door, cutting down those who tried to flee. A fourth waited in the getaway car. Most of the Shias at prayer were hit; at least 17 died and more than 20 others were wounded, 12 of them critically. The dead included three children.

"We all were praying when bullets started hitting us from the back," said one victim, being treated at a nearby hospital. "I was hit by bullets and then I fell unconscious." Witnesses said neighbours rushed to the mosque, grabbing small children and old men, cradling the dead and comforting the wounded. "Blood was splattered all over the floor of the mosque," a witness said. "The wounded and the dead all seemed to be piled on each other."

The attack came a day after a bomb destroyed a bridge near the country residence in Punjab of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in an apparent attempt to assassinate him. The bomb, which killed four people, went off as Mr Sharif was supposed to be crossing the bridge. Mr Sharif yesterday denounced the slaughter and said his government was "fully determined to weed out terrorism".

The massacre caused panic across the country. Many people now fear an upsurge in the wave of sectarian killings that has claimed more than 3,500 lives in the past five years.

Spontaneous demonstrations were staged as citizens protested at the failure of the government to control the sectarian violence.

At the scene of yesterday's attack, outraged villagers chanted anti-government slogans and blocked the road to the village with burning tyres. The majority Sunni and minority Shia communities have been engaged in tit-for-tat killings since the early 1990s, Punjab being the area worst affected.

It is probably no coincidence that both the assassination attempt and the massacre came after the first serious attempt by Mr Sharif's government to get to grips with Pakistan's endemic anarchy.

In November, Mr Sharif imposed martial law on the port city of Karachi, where rival gangs of terrorists representing MQM, the main political party of Muslims who migrated from India at Partition, and its breakaway factions, had brought mayhem to the city's streets for months on end.

After dismissing the provincial government, Mr Sharif rounded up hundreds of MQM partisans and set up special military-style courts to try them for terrorist offences. On Monday, an MQM volunteer was hanged in Karachi for kidnapping and raping a teenage girl.

The MQM has denied involvement in the attempt to kill Mr Sharif, but senior police and intelligence officials in Islamabad insist that MQM and an extremist Sunni group called Sipah-i-Sahaba were at the top of their list of suspects. "Although we are also looking at possible foreign involvement, such as India or Iran, those two groups are the prime suspects," a senior intelligence official said.

Although there is no plain interest in common between the MQM, which contains both Sunni and Shia members, and the Sunni groups, which contains both migrants and Pakistani natives, they have found common cause in seeking to destabilise Pakistan's central government, and there is overlap between the organisations.

The government has annoyed the Sunni extremists by trying to improve its relations with Shia Iran. The Sunni partisans assert that Pakistan's Shia minority gets arms and money from Iran - a claim that Tehran denies.

Ramadan is often a season of outrages and turmoil in Pakistan. That it has proved so again this year suggests that although Mr Sharif has concentrated more power in his own hands than any previous Pakistani prime minister, he remains largely helpless before the destructive forces within the nation.