PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Nine people were killed and at least 25 wounded when a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up last night in a crowded Shiite Muslim prayer hall in this border region.
The attack marked the onset of sectarian violence that often flares during Ashoura, the annual religious holiday when Shiites mourn the death in the seventh century of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiites are a minority in Pakistan.
Elsewhere in the troubled mountain region near the Afghan border, dozens of Pakistani paramilitary troops abandoned an outpost after threats by Islamic militants.
A day earlier, rebel fighters overran a nearby fort and military officials were still searching yesterday for 15 missing soldiers.
Within an hour of yesterday's suicide bombing, Peshawar Mayor Haji Ghulam Ali confirmed that at least nine people were confirmed dead, including one policeman.
Several worshipers who gathered at Lady Reading Hospital where the wounded were treated said they saw a youth force his way into the prayer hall before detonating his explosives.
"I was present outside the compound of the worship hall and the sermon by the head cleric was in progress when the explosion took place inside the premises," said Jaffar Abbas.
Authorities say the bomber was as young as 16 years old.
Witnesses said the scene at the hall was chaotic after the blast, which left blood and body parts on the floor. The injured included two female police officers posted in an effort to boost security during the religious holiday.
Pakistan has been the scene of sectarian violence since the 1980s with the emergence of Sunni and Shiite militant groups that have since waged a bloody war, particularly during the religious holiday.
"The Shiites are hunted by militant groups of those who want Pakistan to become a Sunni state, and this is the preferred time to kill them," said Christine Fair, an analyst for the Rand Corp. who specializes in South Asian affairs. She said the trend among militants was to use younger and younger suicide bombers.
"These attacks aren't as sophisticated as people think," she said. "Successful bombers don't need an exit strategy. There's no danger of being interrogated. It's better than a gun."