LAHORE, Pakistan: Pakistan was on high alert Monday for the mourning processions of Ashura, a flashpoint for sectarian violence, a day after the country’s deadliest bombing in more than a year killed 55 people.
A suicide bomber struck at the main Pakistan-India border crossing on Sunday, causing carnage among crowds leaving the colorful daily ceremony to close the Wagah frontier post, near the eastern city of Lahore.
The explosion, which wounded more than 120, was a rare attack in Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s powerbase.
At least two different factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have claimed the attack, the first major strike since the army launched an offensive against militant strongholds in the tribal northwest in June.
The Wagah ceremony is one of Pakistan’s few genuine tourist attractions, drawing people from all walks of life.
Like many Pakistanis who attend the event, eyewitness Nawaz Khan had gone with family members, visiting from the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“There were 14 of us, after the parade I came out of the gate and my brother told me to go back and bring the children,” Khan told AFP.
As he returned with the children, he said, he saw a “young boy” running towards the gate, who was stopped by a ranger.
“Then there was a huge bang and I saw my brother flying in the air. There were screams all around and the place was filled with smell of burnt human flesh and blood,” he said.
“I had lost the children and I was screaming for them and then I saw the body of my brother lying on the ground with other dead bodies.”
Security forces across the country were bracing on Monday for possible attacks as Shiite Muslims mark Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Thousands of minority Shiites will take to the streets for mourning processions and the occasion has been marred by sectarian bloodshed in recent years.
Around 10,000 police and paramilitary rangers have been deployed in Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi, officials said, and some mobile phone services have been shut down.
This is a tactic routinely deployed at sensitive times in Pakistan to try to stop militants using mobile phones to detonate bombs.
Sectarian violence has been on the rise in recent years, mostly targeting Shiites, who make up 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million population, and at least 11 people were killed in Ashura clashes in Rawalpindi last year.
Security analyst Hasan Askari said the security forces’ focus on the Ashura threat may have made them take their eye off the ball at Wagah.
“There was a lot of security for the Muharram processions so this place was the easiest target,” he told AFP.
“Security forces have taken a lot of precautions, they are now looking for soft targets.”
An editorial in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, speculated on a possible link to the ongoing anti-militant army operation in North Waziristan tribal area.
People watching the ceremony may have been “deliberately targeted because of their perceived support for the security forces,” Dawn said.
Pakistan has suffered years of bloody Islamist violence but even in a country inured to near-daily bombings, Sunday’s strike has caused shock and revulsion.
The attack so close to the Indian border comes at a delicate point in Islamabad-New Delhi ties.
Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors are running high after an upsurge in shelling incidents across the disputed border in Kashmir.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the “shocking” attack, describing it as a “dastardly act of terrorism” and offering condolences to the bereaved families.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also condemned the attack.