Suicide bombers kill at least 35 worshippers in Lahore shrine

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Two suicide bombers struck a popular Muslim shrine in Pakistan's second largest city late last night, killing 35 people and wounding 175 others in the second major attack in Lahore in a month, the city's top official said.

The bombers struck as thousands of people were visiting the Data Darbar shrine, where a famous Sufi saint is buried. Muslims in Pakistan visit shrines and mosques in large numbers on Thursday and Friday nights.

Lahore has experienced a growing number of attacks as Taliban fighters along the north-west border with Afghanistan have teamed up with militant groups in the country's heartland once supported by the government.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. But Islamist extremists consider Sufis to be heretics and have often targeted them, as well as Shias and other minority groups.

The first bomber detonated his explosives in a large underground room where visitors sleep and wash themselves before praying, said Khusro Pervez, the top government official in Lahore.

The attack occurred as volunteers were handing out food to people visiting the shrine, said Chaudary Mohammed Shafique, a senior police official.

Minutes later, a second bomber detonated his explosives upstairs in a large courtyard in front of the shrine as people tried to flee the first attack, said Mr Pervez. The blasts ripped concrete from the walls, twisted metal gates and left wires hanging from the ceiling. Blood stained the shrine's white marble floor.

Video: 35 killed in Pakistan

"It was a horrible scene," said Mohammed Nasir, a volunteer security guard at the shrine who was getting ready to pray when the first blast occurred. "There were dead bodies all around with blood and people were crying."

Police initially said they were investigating the source of a third blast but concluded that there were only two suicide bombers, whose heads were later found, said Mr Pervez.

At least 25 of those wounded in the attacks are in critical condition, he said.

Demonstrators gathered outside the shrine in the hours after the attack, protesting the security lapse that allowed the bombings to occur. Police fired into the air and threw rocks to disperse the protesters.

Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's most prosperous province, Punjab, and a key political, military and cultural centre, has been the scene of some of the most spectacular attacks in the country over the past year.

On 28 May, gunmen and a suicide squad lobbed grenades and sprayed bullets in attacks on two mosques in the city packed with worshippers from the minority Ahmadi sect. At least 93 people were killed and dozens wounded.

The government has been criticised for lacking the will to crack down on militants in Punjab, many of whom are part of now-banned groups started with government support in the 1980s and 90s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and pressure arch-enemy India. Many of these groups have formed links with the Pakistani Taliban, which has recruited militants to carry out attacks in parts of Pakistan far from its sanctuary in the northwest.

One of the most high-profile attacks in Lahore came in March 2009, when militants armed with rocket launchers, hand grenades and assault rifles attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team and security detail, killing six police and a driver and wounding seven players and a coach. That assault led to the suspension of international cricket matches in Pakistan.

In October 2009, gunmen attacked three security facilities in Lahore, leaving 28 dead. In December 2009, two bombs killed 48 at a market in the city.