Sectarian strife racks Pakistan

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Islamabad (Reuter) - Gunmen killed a leader of a militant Shia Muslim group in the Pakistani town of Bahawalpur yesterday hours after 21 Sunni Muslims died in a dawn attack on a mosque in the nearby city of Multan, Shia sources said.

They said two men on a motor-cycle shot Mumtaz-ul-Hassan, president of the local branch of the Shia Tehrik-i-Jafria Pakistan movement, while he was on his way to evening prayers.

The killing appeared to have been a reprisal for the attack on the mosque in Multan, where gunmen burst in to the Majid Al-Khair mosque just after early-morning prayers. All those killed were Sunni Muslims. Hospital officials said many of the dead were boys aged 10 to 16, from a religious school adjacent to the mosque.

Witnesses said three black cars pulled up to the mosque, and several men with machine-guns leapt out and opened fire. The gunmen then fled.

Afterwards, Multan's normally bustling streets were deserted as police and paramilitary soldiers patrolled in armoured troop carriers and Jeeps mounted with machine-guns.

By mid-afternoon the army had been deployed. Shia Muslims, fearful of retaliation, were gathering in a nearby mosque, witnesses said. A separate Shia mosque was burned, but there were no injuries. From loudspeakers on both Shia and Sunni mosques, there were calls for people to get their weapons and prepare for a battle.

Earlier this month, in a remote part of north-western Pakistan, a week- long battle left 100 people from both branches of the religion dead, many of them reportedly decapitated and left in mosques.