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Pakistan on alert ahead of Shia festival

Tensions high as Taliban militants die in raids and shootouts

Pakistan on alert ahead of Shia festival

A man shops for knives used in self-flaggellation processions during Ashura at a shop in Lahore (picture: AFP/Arif Ali) reporter, Karachi

November 14, 2013

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Pakistan security forces were on high alert as the minority Shia population prepared to commemorate the annual Muslim festival Ashura at sunset on Wednesday after a series of clashes with Taliban left at least six militants dead.

In Karachi, paramilitary rangers killed three suspected Taliban militants after a shootout in Gulshan-e-Buner, an area of the city notorious for terrorist activity.

“The exchange of gunfire took place after rangers launched a targeted operation in the area,” said a spokesman for the paramilitary force.

The aim of the terrorists was to target Shia processions during Ashura, he said. Ashura is the final day of a 10-day mourning period, marking the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Imam Hussain, and a highlight of the Shia religious calendar.

On Wednesday evening, two low-intensity bombs wounded several people including the cameraman of a local news channel near a place of worship in the northern Karachi suburb of Naziamabad.

In another district, Quaidabad, police arrested a key Taliban operative and four accomplices in a separate raid seizing weapons and explosive material.

Police said they also prevented a terrorist attack in restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during an operation in which three Taliban operatives were killed.

This year’s Ashura festival comes amid terror threats from the Pakistani Taliban following the killing of leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike earlier this month.

In recent years the holiday has often turned violent. Last year, 30 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in five attacks across the country including a suicide bombing by the Taliban in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan.

In the lead up to the festival, Human Rights Watch called on Pakistani authorities to guarantee the safety of mourners.

“Pakistan’s besieged Shia citizens should be able to participate in processions without fear of predictable attack while the government just looks on,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, HRW's Pakistan director. “Arresting extremist group members responsible for past attacks would be an important first step.”

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