ISLAMABAD, Apr 5 – A suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shiite religious gathering in the north of violence-wracked Pakistan Sunday, killing at least 20 people, a minister said.
The attack took place outside a Shiite mosque in the town of Chakwal, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Islamabad, a senior police official told AFP.
"According to information received so far at least 20 people have died and some 100 were injured in the suicide attack," provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah told AFP.
"The bomber was intercepted at the entrance otherwise he could have caused large scale casualties," Sanaullah said.
"We have sent two helicopters to move the injured to hospitals in other cities."
Police said some 1,200 people were attending the religious gathering when the attack occurred.
"A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of Imambargah (Shiite mosque) where a religious gathering was taking place," senior police official Chaudhry Zulfiqar told AFP.
"Our policemen deployed at the gate tried to stop the attacker from going inside where some 1,200 people were attending a majlis (Shiite religious meeting)."
The bombing comes just a day after two suicide attacks targeting Pakistani security forces killed at least 15 people.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari "strongly condemned" the mosque attack, his office said.
"The President deplored the attack and said such acts were being masterminded by people who were against the state and wanted to bring a bad name to the religion," it said in a statement.
The nuclear-armed Muslim country is under pressure from the United States, which has put it at the heart of efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda, to take decisive action against militants alleged to enjoy support from Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Zardari ordered authorities to find the perpetrators and subject them to "exemplary punishment" and to provide the injured with the best possible medical treatment.
A witness said that a "very loud blast" occurred during a brief interval in the religious session when people were going in and out of the mosque.
"There was a huge blast and a lot of smoke. I rushed to the main gate and saw several bodies lying in a pool of blood and body parts scattered all around," Qazi Wafa told AFP by telephone.
"It was the most horrible scene of my life, but I suddenly started helping efforts to send injured people to hospital."
He added that Shiites and Sunnis lived "like brothers" in the neighbourhood and that both were participating in the religious gathering.
Sectarian and militant violence has been on the rise in nuclear-armed Pakistan over the past few years.
More than 1,700 people have been killed in a wave of bomb attacks since government forces fought gunmen holed up in a radical Islamabad mosque in July 2007.
Shiites account for some 20 percent of Pakistan’s mostly Sunni Muslim population of 160 million.
Although the two groups usually coexist peacefully, more than 4,000 people have died in outbreaks of sectarian violence since the late 1980s.