37 die in two Hangu blasts, violence

11 Feb 2006

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HANGU, Feb 10: Death toll on Friday rose to 37 and the number of injured to 91 in two days of sectarian violence in Hangu, NWFP.

A blast, apparently caused by a suicide bomber, struck Ashura mourners on the main Hangu-Tall road at about 9.35am on Thursday, triggering violence.

Another blast followed immediately causing further casualties, security officials and eyewitnesses said.

NWFP police chief Riffat Pasha put the death toll at 31, saying that there had been reports of few more casualties in Ibrahimzai, but that remained to be confirmed.

Riots broke out in different parts of the city and surrounding villages, about 130km from Peshawar.

Army was immediately called out to control the situation that had gone out of police control. But locals said that their number was too small to control the rioters.

There were widespread incidents of arson attacks and lootings. Fire fighters face hardships to put out raging flames that have burnt almost 75 per cent of shops in the main bazaar.

Hangu continued to reverberate with staccato of gunfire and heavy machineguns, and occasional bangs of mortar fire were also heard till the filing of this report, despite the two-day-old curfew and patrolling by the paramilitary and police contingents.

Combatants refused to heed calls for calm and peace by Ulema, the district and provincial government. Groups exchanged fire in Koi Bagh, Mohallah Bahadur Garhi, Mohallah Chashma Masjid and Pass Kali.

At times, the firing was so intense that people had problems performing last rites of their loved ones who died in the explosions.

At least 100 rockets were fired on Ibrahimzai village, about 10 kilometres to the east of Hangu city, on Thursday night.

The NWFP government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident and announced compensation for the victims. High Court Chief Justice Tariq Pervez on Friday nominated Justice Fazlur Rehman Khan for the probe.

Describing the situation as grim, an official said paramilitary troops backed by armed personnel carriers had failed to establish the writ of the government.

“The situation is still very tense,” a senior police official told Dawn in Peshawar.

There were calls by local representatives for more troop deployment to ward off possible attacks from neighbouring Orakzai Agency.

However, Mr Pasha said the political administration in Orakzai had held out assurances against any trouble from the tribal region.

Security officials said a warning had been given to the provincial government about two weeks ago to watch against possible terrorist attacks in Hangu.

“Yes, warnings were issued to the government two weeks ago. We don’t know as to why it did not take appropriate security measures”, a senior official said.

Hangu has had a history of sectarian violence that has struck the city four times since 1980, including the latest one.

“Appropriate measures should have been taken, keeping in mind the history of Hangu,” the official said.

Locals said policemen escorting the Ashura procession were a few and armed with only sticks therefore, they remained unable to pre-empt the sabotage.

Doctors said local hospitals were running short of life saving drugs. They said seven of the dead were so badly mutilated that their bodies were beyond recognition.

The dead also included Constable Mohammad Rasool, paramilitary soldier Arshad Mahmood and a government official Wilayat Khan.

About 20 seriously wounded persons were shifted to Kohat by helicopters.

In Pass Kalay, people could not bury their relatives due to heavy fire and mortar attacks, said one witness.

After the explosion, according to eyewitness account, rioters torched hundreds of shops, vehicles and banks in the main bazaar and started indiscriminate firing. Power supply to the city could not be restored due to continuing clashes.

“One can’t imagine the volume of destruction”, said Mohammad Ikram, a local. Smoke is still bellowing from the burned shops and buildings.

Security officials investigating the tragic incident said they had not been able to collect forensic evidence of the suspected suicide bomber.

“We have drawn a blank over there,” the official told Dawn in Peshawar. But he quoted an eyewitness as seeing smoke coming out of the jacket of the suspected bomber, before a huge explosion ripping his head and tossing it up in the air.

A senior police official in Peshawar supported the statement and said there had been witnesses who saw the torso flying up about 20 feet in the air after the explosion.

He claimed that the police had recovered the torso and lower limbs of the suspected bomber, brought to the Hangu District Headquarters Hospital after the incident.

“There is absolutely no doubt as to the cause of the explosion,” the police official said, requesting he not be identified.

Security agencies and police were also at variance about report of a second blast.

Police claimed that the second explosion might have come from gas cylinders when angry mobs torched a shop that had stored gas cylinders.

The police version is further corroborated by the absence of a crater near the scene of the second explosion.

AFP adds: The army warned to use gunship helicopters on the activists who were holed up in villages near the tense town of Hangu and launching mortar rounds at each other.

Paramilitary troops and police maintained a 24-hour curfew in the mountain town.

Security was also high amid fears that the bloodshed could stoke up sectarian tensions.

Gunfire broke out in Hangu after the authorities in some areas relaxed curfew restrictions for Friday’s prayers, according to witnesses, who said they saw residents and security officials running for cover.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, police said.

Military officials said troops had flushed out Shias and Sunnis who had stationed themselves in Hangu bazaar and attacked the rival sect’s shops late in the night.

“There was heavy firing and shelling last night but the situation is quite under control now,” paramilitary Frontier Corps official Jahanzeb Khan told AFP.

Troops have warned the feuding groups positioned on mountains in Ibrahimzai to disengage or the army would use helicopter gunships against them, Hangu police chief Abdul Majid Khan said.

Police vans fitted with loudspeakers were warning residents to stay in their homes, Mr Khan said.

“The situation is not fully under control but there is a tense calm,” Mr Khan said. The town centre was still restive because the hospital was returning the bodies of victims to their relatives for burial.

Mr Khan said the suicide bomber’s remains were in the hospital and the authorities were trying to identify him. The hospital chief, Abdul Rashid Khan, said a body with its upper torso missing was being treated as that of the bomber.

Interior Minister was quoted as saying that the situation in Hangu was under control.