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Gunman Shoot, Kill 21 Worshippers During Services at Pakistani Mosque

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times

Rivalry between two Muslim sects in Pakistan erupted again in murderous violence on Monday as masked gunmen opened fire on worshippers at a Sunni mosque, slaying 21 people - many of them boys from a religious school - as they prayed.

The blood bath in Multan, a city in the eastern province of Punjab, came one day after the killing of a leader of the minority Shiite sect in a town 60 miles to the south.

Infuriated by the attack on their sanctuary, Sunnis in Multan came out on the streets to stone Shiite neighborhoods, shout anti-Shiite slogans, and block roads with burning tires.

The back-to-back incidents highlighted the increasingly hostile relations between militants of the two rival branches of Islam in a country founded nearly a half-century ago so that the subcontinent's Muslims would have a state of their own.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, in the town of Larkana, ancestral home of the family of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, police battled followers of her estranged brother and political rival Murtaza, who was slain by police in Karachi on Friday in still murky circumstances.

Some commentators predicted Murtaza Bhutto's death would further erode the mandate of his sister, whose leadership of Pakistan since 1993 has seen a sharp downturn in the economy and increasing lawlessness in much of the country.

Witnesses said early morning prayers had just started at Multan's Masjid Al-Khair when the armed men invaded the mosque and showered the worshippers with submachine-gun fire. The gunmen, said to number four, managed to escape.

All of the victims were Sunnis, the majority denomination in Pakistan. According to hospital officials, many of the slain worshippers were students, ages 10 to 16, from the religious school next to the mosque. At least 33 people were wounded in the fusillade, and the death toll was expected to rise.

The matting where the Sunnis had been been praying was soaked with blood. The dead, their faces covered with cloths, were wheeled away in handcarts.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but authorities said they believed the attack was for the murder of the Shiite leader in Bawahalpur the previous day.