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Gunmen Kill 21 Muslim Worshipers in Attack on Mosque

September 23, 1996

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Masked men opened fire on Sunni Muslim worshipers Monday, killing 21 people and seriously wounding at least 33 others.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but local police believe it was linked to recent violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, whose religious rivalry dates to the seventh century and the inception of Islam.

Early morning prayers had just begun at the Majid Al-Khair mosque in the southern Punjab town of Multan, about 270 miles south of Islamabad, when the gunmen leaped out of black cars and began spraying bullets, witnesses said.

``At first we couldn’t make any sense of what was happening,″ said Maulana Abdul Rehman, who was leading the prayers before a congregation of more than 200 people.

``Then I heard the cries of a student who was killed.″

All those killed were Sunni Muslims, the majority sect in this Islamic nation of 140 million people. Many were boys aged 10 to 16 from a religious school adjacent to the mosque, hospital officials said.

Two people have been arrested in connection with the attack, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

From loudspeakers atop both Shiite and Sunni mosques, there were calls for people to get their weapons and prepare for battle, witnesses said.

Hundreds of people took part in a procession carrying the dead bodies, draped in white shrouds, to a graveyard. The marchers wailed and vowed revenge.

Multan’s normally bustling streets were deserted and shops shuttered as scores of police and paramilitary soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers and jeeps mounted with machine guns.

Occasional gunfire was heard, and roaming bands of young boys were seen burning tires in protest and running from police.

Fearful of retaliation, Shiite Muslims gathered in a nearby mosque, witnesses said. A separate Shiite mosque was burned, but there were no injuries and only slight damage, local police said.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has warned that sectarian violence threatens the future of Pakistan, created in 1947 as a separate homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Shiite and Sunni Muslims disagree on who is the rightful heir to Islam’s prophet Mohammed.

Militants are in the minority in both communities in Pakistan, and most members of the two sects generally get along.

Earlier this month, in a remote corner of northwest Pakistan, a ferocious weeklong battle left more than 100 people dead, many reportedly decapitated and left in mosques. Combatants used rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns and heavy artillery.

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