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Karachi reels from Ashura carnage

43 killed as bomber blows himself up at procession

Pakistan's financial capital Karachi shut down yesterday to mourn its worst attack in two years and count the cost of rioting after a suicide bomber killed 43 people at a Shia Muslim procession.

The bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body as crowds paraded down Mohammad Ali Jinnah Road in the heart of Pakistan's largest city, turning the Shias' holiest day of Ashura into a bloodbath.

Within minutes, furious mourners went on the rampage, throwing stones at ambulances, torching cars and buildings and reducing shops to charred wreckage. Fire fighters continued to drench the flames after daybreak Tuesday.

The bombing and ensuing riots underscored the extent of the volatility in Pakistan, where militant attacks have killed more than 2,760 people since July 2007 and which Washington has put on the frontline of its war on al-Qaeda.

"The death toll has risen to 43 -- 41 bodies were shifted to the Civil Hospital and two others to the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre," police surgeon Jagdish Kumar told AFP.

Three women and three children were among the dead, Kumar added.

Saghir Ahmed, health minister of the southern province of Sindh, of which Karachi is capital, said more than 60 people were wounded and confirmed 40 deaths.

Karachi, a city of 14 million and the economic hub of the nuclear-armed country, has escaped most of the Islamist bomb attacks that have battered the northwest and other major cities over the last two and a half years.

Investigators retrieved the head and torso of the bomber, and blamed the Taliban, against which the military has waged a major operation near the Afghan border, and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, another feared Islamist network.

"The explosion ripped his legs off but the upper part of his body remained intact with his head. The bomber used 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of highly explosive material in his attack," said bomb disposal official Munir Shaikh.

The government announced a day of mourning, closing schools, shops and offices, with streets eerily quiet and traffic on the roads thin.

Funeral prayers were to be heard later Tuesday at the Imambargah Shia mosque close to the scene of the attack, where Interior Minister Rehman Malik vowed the government would investigate the bomb and compensate the victims.

"Police arrested more than 100 people in past months who were plotting to launch attacks in Karachi," he told reporters.

Firefighters struggled throughout the night to extinguish a fire at the nearby markets set ablaze by rioters, as stunned vendors waited helplessly for an opportunity to salvage anything left.

An AFP reporter said the area was littered with abandoned sandals, water bottles, lunch boxes and the charred wreckage of cars and buses.

Mohammad Hanif, a plastic toy vendor, told AFP outside his ruined shop that the bombing had robbed him of his livelihood.

"Terrorists have not only killed people attending the procession, but they killed us and our families who depended on this shop," Hanif said, tears in his eyes.

Mayor Mustafa Kamal said losses could run into billions of rupees (millions of dollars) and said the government would do everything to compensate traders.

The blast also impacted the financial markets, with the benchmark KSE-100 Index opening down 1.5 percent Tuesday but recovering in the early afternoon, albeit on lacklustre trading.

Sectarian violence periodically flares in Pakistan between Shias, who beat and whip themselves in religious fervour during Ashura, and the country's majority Sunnis, who oppose the public display of grief.

Shias account for about 20 percent of Pakistan's mostly Sunni Muslim population of 167 million. More than 4,000 people have died in outbreaks of sectarian violence in Pakistan since the late 1980s.

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