Police try to identify suspected suicide bomber

Police began efforts on Saturday to identify the remains of a suspected suicide bomber who attacked a popular Muslim shrine near the official residence of Pakistan’s prime minister, killing at least 20 people and wounding scores more, an official said.

The explosion ripped through a congregation of hundreds of mainly Shi’ite worshippers who had gathered on Friday for the last day of a religious festival at the Bari Imam shrine.

The shrine is about a kilometre from the residence of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave that houses the embassy of the United States and other countries in the capital, Islamabad.

Thousands of Muslims, both Sunnis and minority Shi’ites, attended the five-day festival. The explosion left blood, body parts, shoes and pieces of clothing scattered over a wide area.

Police recovered the head of a man who appeared to be in his 20s and is believed to be the suicide attacker, said Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

“[Investigators] are trying to identify him. We will soon determine who he is,” Ahmed said.

He offered a reward of 500 000 rupees (about R55 000) for information that helps identify the attacker.

Saturday newspapers published photographs of the suspect’s head — with an unshaven face, thin mustache and curly hair.

The bombing struck the congregation under a canvas shade as they awaited the arrival of Shi’ite leader Hamid Mosavi, a vehement critic of the US-led war on terrorism, who was about to deliver a sermon. Mosavi was not hurt, witnesses said.

A government official, Tariq Pirzada, said at least 18 people were killed and 86 others hurt in the explosion, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.

Hundreds of Shi’ite worshippers, beating their chests and heads in mourning, clashed with police near the shrine afterward when officers charged the crowd with batons to clear the way for ambulances. Some chanted, “Down with America!”

Police stepped up security in Islamabad on Saturday.

President General Pervez Musharraf condemned the deadliest attack in the capital for years, and appealed for his countrymen to unite against “religious terrorism, sectarianism and extremism”.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan also condemned the bombing, and expressed outrage that civilians have been repeatedly targeted at their places of worship.

“Let me express the condolences of the US government for this tragic event,” added US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca, who was in Islamabad for talks. “This was a horrible thing to have happened.”

Sectarian attacks are common in Pakistan. Sunnis make up about 80% of its 150-million people, and Shi’ites about 17%.

Most live peacefully together, but extremist elements on both sides have violent agendas. The schism dates back to a seventh-century dispute over who was the true heir to the Prophet Mohammed. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report

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