ISLAMABAD – A Taliban suicide bomber struck a Shiite Muslim procession near Pakistan's capital, killing 23 people in the latest of a series of bombings targeting Shiites during the holiest month of the year for the sect, officials said Thursday.
The bomber attacked the procession around midnight Wednesday in the city of Rawalpindi, located next to the capital, Islamabad, said Deeba Shahnaz, a state rescue official. At least 62 people were wounded by the blast, including six policemen. Eight of the dead and wounded were children, said Shahnaz.
Police tried to stop and search the bomber as he attempted to join the procession, but he ran past them and detonated his explosives, said senior police official Haseeb Shah. The attacker was also carrying grenades, some of which exploded, said Shah.
"I think the explosives combined with grenades caused the big loss," said Shah.
Local TV footage showed the scene of the bombing littered with body parts and smeared with blood. Shiites beat their heads and chests in anguish.
"It was like the world was ending," said one of the victims, Nasir Shah, describing the blast. He was being treated at a local hospital for wounds to his hands and legs.
Earlier Wednesday, the Taliban set off two bombs within minutes outside a Shiite mosque in the southern city of Karachi, killing at least one person and wounding several others, senior police official Javed Odho said.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attacks in Rawalpindi and Karachi.
"We have a war of belief with Shiites," Ahsan told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. "They are blasphemers. We will continue attacking them."
The Sunni-Shiite schism over the true heir to Islam's Prophet Muhammad dates back to the seventh century.
Shiites are currently observing the holy month of Muharram. On Saturday, Shiites will observe the holiest day of the month, Ashoura, which commemorates the seventh century death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.
The country has a long history of sectarian violence carried out by both extremist Sunni and Shiite Muslims against the opposite sect. Most attacks in recent years have targeted Shiites, who make up a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
The Pakistani government increases security every Muharram to protect Shiites. But attacks regularly occur, and activists criticize the government for not doing enough to safeguard the minority sect.