KARACHI, Pakistan, AP -Security forces blocked main roads and shut schools Wednesday in Pakistan’s largest city to prevent riots by students as mass funerals were held for many of the 56 people killed by a suicide bomber at a Sunni Muslim prayer service.
Many Karachi businesses were closed and public transportation was shut down following Tuesday’s bombing and subsequent rioting by mobs who burned cars and buses and hurled stones at police to protest the attack.
The blast ripped through Sunni religious dignitaries and worshippers who were among 10,000 people gathered in a downtown park to celebrate the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The event was organized by an umbrella organization of moderate Sunni groups, led by the Tehrik movement, whose three top leaders were among the 56 killed. About 100 people were wounded.
Hardline Pakistani Sunni groups are at odds with moderate Sunnis in the country, and regard public ceremonies marking the prophet’s birth as offensive.
Police had been investigating whether two suicide bombers carried out the attack after discovering two severed heads near the service’s main stage, but on Wednesday confirmed only one militant was involved.
“We identified one of the heads as belonging to a sound technician working near the stage, and now believe only one suicide bomber was involved,” Karachi police chief Niaz Siddiqui told The Associated Press.
It was unclear who was responsible for the bombing, one of the deadliest ever in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
Past attacks have been linked to simmering Shiite-Sunni Muslim tensions or fights between moderate and hardline Sunni groups. Most attacks have been blamed on outlawed extremist groups, but claims of responsibility are rarely made.
The Sindh provincial government announced a three-day mourning period as the Sunni group Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat, which helped organize the gathering, called for a general strike.
Large numbers of security forces blocked streets running through Karachi on Wednesday and closed schools to prevent a repeat of the previous night’s rioting across the city and in several other Sindh provincial towns.
But some Sunni officials said the government’s show of force came too late.
“The government did not provide enough security at the park,” said Shah Turabul Haq, leader of Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat. “This is sheer terrorism aimed at weakening moderate Sunni Muslims.”
Funerals for many of the victims were held throughout Karachi on Wednesday, attended by up to 5,000 people. Some chanted “God is great, and our leaders have attained martyrdom.”
Police say the attacker detonated his 11-pound explosive device near Sunni dignitaries seated in front of the stage, where speakers were delivering sermons praising Prophet Muhammad.
Among the fatalities were the Tehrik group’s leader, Abbas Qadri; his deputy, Iftikhar Bhatti; and another top official, Akram Qadri, group spokesman Abdul Rafey told the AP.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf condemned the attack and ordered increased security at religious sites, adding that the culprits “will not go unpunished,” according to a statement issued via Pakistan’s state-run news agency.
Karachi has been the scene of several bombings and other attacks since Pakistan became a key U.S. ally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
On March 19, 2005, a bomb killed 43 people at a Shiite shrine in the southwestern Baluchistan provincial town of Naseerabad.