At least 47 die in blast at Pakistan prayer service

Suicide bomber hits large outdoor gathering in Karachi to mark birthday of Muhammad


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- At least 47 people were killed and more than 100 injured yesterday when a bomber blew himself up in the port city of Karachi at a gathering to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, authorities said.

The deadly blast struck during an outdoor evening prayer service at a Karachi park. Afterward, angry mobs lashed out at security forces, setting dozens of vehicles ablaze, including ambulances and fire trucks, and also damaging two cinemas.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Karachi, on Pakistan's southern coast, has been the site of sectarian violence in the past between the country's majority Sunni Muslims and its Shiite Muslim minority.

Thousands of Sunni worshipers had massed in Nishtar Park, Karachi's biggest venue for religious and political gatherings, to mark Muhammad's birthday, a national holiday here. Karachi Police Chief Niaz Siddiqui told reporters that bomb squads had checked the site in advance and discovered nothing.

"We are suspecting that the suicide bomber came to the venue along with a small rally, which merged into the gathering. He was close to the stage ... and he blew himself up when the prayers were nearing their end," he said after visiting the blast site.

Preliminary investigations indicate that the attacker used as much as 11 pounds of explosive, Siddiqui said.

The explosion was so powerful that it seemed to shake the entire park, witnesses said. A local sect leader said he was lucky to have stepped down from the dais moments before the blast.

"As I went off the stage, I heard a powerful blast and there was blood all over. Most of our leaders who were on stage have been killed," he told reporters.

The dead included at least two prominent Sunni clerics from the area. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao confirmed late yesterday that 47 people were killed, a number likely to rise.

"Strict security arrangements were made, but there was pressure due to a number of processions," Sherpao said.

President Pervez Musharraf condemned the bombing, promising that those who orchestrated it would "not go unpunished," according to a statement issued on Pakistan's state-run news agency. He directed authorities to beef up security at mosques around the country.

Television footage of the scene in Nishtar Park showed carnage and chaos, with bodies lying on the ground and other bloody victims being carried off by frantic survivors.

More than 40 bodies were taken to Jinnah and Abbassi Shahhed hospitals, where doctors operated last night on more than a dozen severely wounded patients, hospital officials said.

Just hours before the blast, Musharraf delivered a speech in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, calling on religious leaders to speak out against terrorism and to curb the use of houses of worship as places for fomenting discord and hatred.

"We have to eliminate terrorism, and all of you should support our efforts in this respect. We have to develop tolerance and contain extremism," he said.

Religious leaders appealed for calm after yesterday's attack, which came hard on the heels of another tragedy in Karachi. On Sunday, at least 30 men, women and children were trampled to death in a stampede at a mosque.

In February, two days of clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in northwestern Pakistan left at least 38 people dead.

Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times.

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