Pakistan on alert after suicide attack on shrine kills 42
Pakistani police went on high alert Friday after two suicide bombers blew themselves up among crowds of worshippers at a Islamic shrine in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 42 people.
The carnage at the Sufi shrine on Thursday was caught on camera in dramatic CCTV footage showing the bombers and the blast which sent hundreds of panicked worshippers fleeing in all directions engulfed in clouds of white smoke.
Thousands of people staged protests in Lahore and in several other cities after the attack on the shrine dedicated to Sufi saint Hazrat Syed Ali bin Usman Hajweri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh.
Pakistan's Taliban, which has been instrumental in a wave of bloody attacks blamed on Islamist militants over the past three years, denied it was involved Thursday's bombings which also left scores injured.
Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attacks, saying: "The government is committed to eradicate the menace of terrorism at all costs."
Most bazaars and markets remained closed and large numbers of police were on patrol in Lahore, considered a playground for Pakistan's elite and home to many top brass in the military and intelligence community.
More than 5,000 people, mostly followers of the saint, staged a protest rally in Lahore after Muslim Friday prayers and similar demonstrations were held in other cities across the country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague branded the attacks as a "vicious and inhuman act".
"Britain stands alongside the people and government of Pakistan against those who commit such appalling atrocities," Hague said.
"We will be a firm friend to Pakistan as it works towards a safer and more prosperous future for all its citizens, and will continue our resolute support for efforts to prevent such attacks in the future."
European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the incident showed the scale of the extremist threat in Pakistan.
More than 3,400 people have been killed in a three-year bombing campaign by Islamist extremists to avenge Pakistani military operations and the government's alliance with the US over the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
But a spokesman for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan denied it was involved in Thursday's attack, the second against religious sites in the city of 10 million people in just over a month.
"We are not responsible for these attacks, this is a conspiracy by foreign secret agencies, you know we do not attack public places," Azam Tariq told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We condemn this brutal act. Our target is very clear and we only attack police, army and other security personnel."
The group was thrust into the global spotlight over its alleged involvement in a plot to blow up a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May.
Thousands of people were at the centuries-old shrine at the time of the blasts, which engulfed the site in a huge cloud of smoke and left the white marble floor splattered with blood, body parts and people's belongings.
"I saw dead bodies and injured people lying on the floor in pools of blood," said one witness.
Authorities said they had found the heads of two suicide bombers, who wore the green turbans of Sufi followers, and were investigating how they had managed to penetrate the area despite strict security measures.
The CCTV footage showed a guard chasing one of the bombers just moments before he set off his explosives belt.
"We were searching everyone walking through the gate. One bomber crossed the gate and a security guard ran to catch him because he was suspicious but in the meantime he blew himself up," Rao Fazal-ur-Rehman, an administrator at the shrine, told AFP.
After escaping much of the bloodshed in other parts of Pakistan in recent yers, Lahore has increasingly suffered, with around 265 people killed in nine attacks since March last year.
In May suspected Sunni Muslim militants wearing suicide vests burst into two Ahmadi prayer halls in Lahore and killed 82 worshippers.
They were the worst attacks in Pakistan since a suicide bomber killed 101 people on January 1 at a volleyball game in Bannu near the tribal belt along the Afghan border that Washington calls Al-Qaeda's global headquarters.
Sufism is a mystical movement, which includes both Shiites and Sunnis, that spreads the message of Islam through music, poetry and dancing. Radical groups consider it un-Islamic.
© 2010 AFP