A powerful bomb blast on Saturday in a busy market of a remote Pakistani region near the Afghan border killed at least 21 people and injuring more than 40 others.
The bomb was placed in a box of vegetables in a market at Parachinar city and exploded during the early morning rush hour. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Pakistan Talibaan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi [LeJ], a hardline Sunni militant group with a long history of attacking members of the minority Shia Muslim community.
A senior police officer who spoke to the Financial Times from the northern city of Peshawar said the attack may have been in retaliation for the killing of Asif Chotoo, leader of the LeJ, by Pakistani police on Tuesday. If that is the case, the attack would demonstrate the continuing ability of hardline militants to retaliate immediately to losses despite a 15-year-long campaign by the Pakistan army to target them.
LeJ is one the main factions that have fought the Pakistan army and the police since Islamabad joined the US-led war on terror after 9/11.
The majority of the population in Parachinar and its surrounding areas are Shia Muslims. The community’s prominent figures and places of congregation, such as mosques, have been attacked by Sunni militants for years.
The violence between the two communities has been sharpened by the rivalry between predominantly Shia Muslim Iran and Saudi Arabia — the centre of the hardline ‘wahabi’ tradition of Sunni Islam. “Groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi believe they are performing a valuable service to Saudi Arabia when they attack Shias in Pakistan” said a Shia community leader who spoke to the FT after Saturday’s attack.
The attack followed recent warnings from security officials of possible attacks by Pakistani militants loyal to ‘Daesh’, or the Islamic State militant group, returning from Syria after recent decisive gains by forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds of Pakistani Sunni militants had reportedly travelled to Syria and Iraq in recent years to fight alongside Isis fighters.
“There have been reports of [pro ‘Daesh’] militants returning back to Pakistan,” said retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former military commander. “There is a very strong case for tightening controls to block any such militants from launching attacks in Pakistan”.
Western diplomats said the attack will further add to Pakistan’s Shia-Sunni divide at a time when the country needs to become increasingly united. “Pakistan already has too many challenges. The case for national unity has never been strong for Pakistan,” said one western official in Islamabad.
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