High alert in Pakistan as suicide bomb victims buried


By Zeeshan Haider

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani police were on high alert in Peshawar on Sunday, as more than 2,000 people gathered for the funerals of 15 victims of a suicide bomb attack, including the police chief of the volatile northwestern city. 

About 30 people were also wounded in the blast that went off shortly before Shi'ite Muslims, observing their holiest month of Moharram, were to begin a procession in the heart of North West Frontier Province's capital. 

Pakistani policemen gather at the site of a bomb explosion in Peshawar, January 27, 2007. (REUTERS/Ali Imam)

It was unclear who was behind the explosion, but Pakistan has been braced for a fresh outburst of sectarian violence during Moharram, when the country's Shi'ite minority mourns the death of one of the heroes of its sect. 

"According to last information we received 15 people including the suicide bomber have been killed and some 30 wounded, some of them critically," Home Secretary Badshah Gul Wazir told Reuters on Sunday. 

The city's police chief Malik Mohammad Saad was among the dead, along with several fellow officers who had been assigned to guard the procession. 

SECOND DAY RUNNING 

The Peshawar blast came a day after another suicide bomber killed a security guard and himself outside Marriott hotel in a high security zone of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. 

A report in "The News" daily said intelligence agencies suspected Friday's attack in Islamabad may have been carried out by Al-Furqan, a splinter group of Jaish-e-Mohammad, one of the most feared militant groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. 

Al Furqan is believed to have forged links with al Qaeda, and is more anti-Western than Jaish. 

But the motive for the blast at the Marriott remains unclear, as the hotel, which is frequented by western diplomats and businessmen, was also holding a reception later that day for the Indian High Commission to celebrate Republic Day. 

The explosion on Saturday night in Peshawar occurred just metres away from Qasim Ali Khan mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in the city, it was also close to a Shi'ite community centre, which had just been visited by the police caught in the explosion. 

Police had found the remains of the suspected suicide bomber but had not identified what group he might belong to. 

The timing and location made it possible that the motive was sectarian, but the slaying of the chief of police raised possibilities that it was militant groups, possibly sympathetic with al Qaeda or the Taliban, who want to destabilise President Pervez Musharraf's government. 

While the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite extremist groups harks back to the 1980s, some of the most feared Sunni groups have forged links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. 

Al Qaeda has used such groups as foot soldiers in past efforts to assassinate Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. 

But there is also the possibility that the attack was revenge for the Pakistan army's air strike earlier this month on a militant base in South Waziristan, a semi autonomous tribal region on the frontier with Afghanistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda count on support from tribesmen. 

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