At least 25 people were killed and 60 others injured in Karachi on Monday when a suicide bomber, defying a major security clampdown, targeted the main Muslim Shia religious Ashura procession, marking the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram.
It was the third sectarian attack on the minority community in as many days in the port city of Karachi and came in spite of police and security agencies enforcing a massive vigil over the traditional procession route. Sagheer Ahmed, the health minister of Sindh province, told Geo News channel that over 20 bodies and more than 60 injured people were received at hospitals.
Geo TV reported that the death toll has risen to at least 25. The terror attack came close on the heels of a militant bombing that killed eight people in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir's capital of Muzaffarabad and Karachi on Sunday night.
Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmed said it was a suicide attack. "We have retrieved the head of a bomber which confirms it was a suicide attack," he told reporters.
Dense smoke rose from the site of the blast as people ran in panic. Police fired in the air immediately after the explosion.
Appealing for calm, Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal said, "I want to appeal to the people, to my brothers and my elders to stay calm. I am hearing that people are clashing with the police and doctors. Please do not do that. That is what terrorists are aiming at. They want to see this city again on fire."
Ambulances rushed the injured to nearby hospitals, where an emergency was declared. A large police contingent was guarding the procession and sharp shooters were deployed on rooftops on key roads. However, the bomber managed to evade the security ring. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
A major fire erupted in a building on M A Jinnah Road after the explosion and spread rapidly through several floors. It was not immediately clear whether the blaze was caused by the blast or by angry protesters who went on the rampage after the attack.
The procession continued towards its destination despite the blast as many women broke down and wept. Authorities had put in place strict security arrangements for Muharram, during which Karachi has often been hit by sectarian violence in the past years.
Angry mourners from the procession resorted to aerial firing, attacking media and the police personnel. They also torched five cars. Karachi has largely been spared in the Taliban-linked violence that has struck much of Pakistan.
But the city has witnessed frequent sectarian, ethnic and political violence. President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal condemned the blast and appealed for calm. Announcements were also made by mosques across the port city asking people to remain peaceful.
Gilani appealed to the religious and political leadership to help in bringing the situation under control. He also ordered an immediate inquiry into the incident. Two Muharram processions in Karachi were targeted by bomb attacks over the past two days.
Nearly 50 people, including women and policemen, were injured in these attacks. No group has claimed responsibility for these attacks.
Shias are a minority in Pakistan, accounting for only 20 per cent of the country's mostly Sunni Muslim population of 167 million. Over 4,000 people have died in sectarian violence in Pakistan since the late 1980s. The 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar is called the Day of Ashura, which marks the climax of the observance of the holy month.
It is commemorated by Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in 680 AD. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad fasted on this day and asked other people to fast.