At least 53 people were killed yesterday in a suicide bombing that targeted a Shiite rally in Pakistan's south-western city of Quetta, driving up the toll of a recent surge in sectarian bloodshed. Police said the bomber was among the 450-strong crowd and blew himself up on reaching the main square in the city, triggering chaotic scenes. "According to the reports collected from hospitals, 53 people have been killed and 197 have been injured," Sardar Khan, chief of Quetta's police control room told AFP by telephone. The rally was being held to mark the Iran-declared Al Quds day, an international event staged every year by the Shiite community opposed to Israel's control of Jerusalem to show solidarity with Palestinian Muslims. The attack in the Pakistani city was the second this week on the country's Shiite community, which by some estimates comprises about 20 per cent of the population in the mostly Sunni Muslim country, although figures are imprecise and disputed.
Malik Iqbal, police chief for Baluchistan province, said rally organisers had been warned to stay inside a security cordon after intelligence agents received reports about a possible attack. Police were forced to quell unrest following the attack, said Mr Khan. "An angry mob tried to set on fire a private building and vehicles. Some of the participants were armed and they were firing in the air. They also set on fire some bicycles and motorcycles," Mr Khan said. Government officials have said they cannot protect outdoor gatherings from attacks, and the interior minister, Rehman Malik, called on Thursday for Shiites to hold religious ceremonies indoors. The Shiite leader Allama Abbas Kumaili appealed to participants to remain peaceful. "We understand these are attempts to bring Sunni and Shiite sects against each other," he said. Local television channel AAJ said one of its drivers had been killed in the blast, while there were reports of several other journalists injured in the incident. The prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, strongly condemned the bomb blast and called for an immediate inquiry into the incident. The US Embassy also condemned the attack. It was the latest in a string of attacks as Muslims marked the final days of Ramadan. Earlier, at least one man was killed and four wounded yesterday when a suicide bomber blew himself up after being apprehended by police outside a mosque of the Ahmadi sect in the city of Mardan in north-west Pakistan, police said. In the north-west city of Peshawar, which has often been targeted by militants, at least three policemen were injured when a bomb exploded near their vehicle, police said. A triple suicide attack in Lahore on Wednesday, which killed 35 including the three bombers, targeted a Shiite mourning procession made up of thousands of people, at the moment of the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Responsibility for the bombing, and a host of other assaults on religious minorities, was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, which is seeking to overthrow a western-backed government shaken most recently by flooding that has caused massive displacement, suffering and economic damage. * The National, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press