Blast kills 55 at Shiite march in western Pakistan

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 4, 2010

SUKKUR, PAKISTAN - A suicide bombing at a Shiite demonstration in the western Pakistani city of Quetta left at least 55 people dead Friday, triggering fears of an outbreak of sectarian violence as the nation continues to struggle with ruinous floods.

The strike followed a suicide attack that killed at least two people in northwestern Pakistan at a mosque of the Ahmadi sect, a religious minority whose members are frequent victims of Islamist extremists. Suicide bombers struck a Shiite march Wednesday in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least 30 and sparking riots.

The Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan group, asserted responsibility for the Lahore bombing. The United States added the militant organization, which officials say was behind May's Times Square bomb attempt, to its terrorism blacklist this week. A Pakistani Taliban leader said Friday that the group plans more strikes in the United States and Europe.

Attacks by Islamist radicals slowed during the past month as Pakistan coped with its worst-ever natural disaster, which has left 1,600 people dead and displaced millions. Although it was unclear whether militants were offering a reprieve or were themselves weakened by the floodwaters, this week's bombings seemed to mark an end to that lull.

The Quetta bombing injured at least 100. It occurred in a busy commercial area as Shiite Muslims - a minority in a nation of mostly Sunnis - gathered for a march to express solidarity with Palestinians. Similar marches were held elsewhere in Pakistan.

Television footage showed vehicles and motorbikes aflame in deserted streets. According to the news network Express 24/7, surviving protesters fired guns, contributing to the injuries.

Quetta is in the province of Baluchistan, one of Pakistan's least populated and poorest regions. The province was hit by flooding, but the government has restricted movement of international aid agencies in the area, where separatists have waged a low-level insurgency for years.

Monsoon rains that sparked flooding in July let up this week, and floodwaters continued to recede, allowing more Pakistanis to return to the cities and villages they had evacuated weeks before.

But vast swaths of southern Pakistan, including areas surrounding Sukkur, remained underwater, and millions were still living in tent camps. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the inundations had caused as much as $7 billion in damage.

Relief workers and officials said hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis remain stranded on patches of dry land and warned that water-borne illnesses and hunger are still threats.

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