Pakistan car bomb kills 40 during rally

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A remote-controlled car bomb targeting Sunni Muslim radicals exploded in the central city of Multan yesterday, killing at least 40 people and wounding more than 100.

The attack occurred during a rally commemorating the assassinated militant religious leader Azam Tariq, head of the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of Mohammad's Companions), and was the latest in a series of terrorist attacks which have alarmed the government and the local population.

The blast enraged the local Sunni community, 2,000 of whom protested outside the hospital where the victims had been taken, shouting "Shi'ites infidels!" and slogans damning the government. Army troops were deployed to keep the peace.

Hours after the explosion, the Interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao announced he would advise provincial governments to ban all religious gatherings, except for prayers on Fridays - the Muslim sabbath - in a bid to curb the recent upsurge in terror attacks.

Yesterday's bombing came less than a week after a suicide attack left 31 dead at a minority Shia mosque in the eastern city of Sialkot.

Mr Sherpao said he hoped the security measures taken would prevent future attacks by banned militant groups. In an apparent attempt to head off a spiral of revenge strikes, the minister called the blast an act of terrorism with "no relevance to the sectarian divide".

"I do not see the involvement of any religious group," he said.

The position was echoed by President Pervez Musharraf, who claimed the incident "clearly shows that terrorists have no religion and are enemies of mankind."

Mr Sherpao said he had advised provincial governments to be on alert for attacks during Friday prayers, which have become a traditional time for militant bomb attacks on mosques.

He said he would advise provincial governments to ban all religious "gatherings, processions and congregations" until further notice.

The blast occurred in the midst of the thousands of Sunni mourners who had come together at the rally in Multan, about 250 miles south-west of the capital, Islamabad.

"It was dark and people were screaming for help," one witness told reporters. "It was utter chaos."

The leader of the main Shia militant group, Abdul Jalil Naqvi, denied responsibility for the attack, and claimed it was an act of terrorism aimed at provoking sectarian war. "We condemn it," he said.

But the thousands of Sunni Muslims attending the rally gave little credence to the assurances of the government that the attack was not motivated by religious hatred. "Infidels, infidels, Shia infidels!" they shouted outside the Nishtar hospital while waiting to collect bodies for burial. Some vandalised ambulances, shattering the windscreens with sticks, while others burned tyres, enshrouding the area outside the hospital in a pall of black smoke.

Hundreds have died in violence between majority Sunnis and Shi'ites in Pakistan in recent years.

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