ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The violence that’s engulfing Pakistan lurched in a sectarian direction Thursday as an apparent suicide bomber targeted a gathering of Shiite Muslims in the northwestern city of Peshawar, leaving nine people dead and 25 injured.
Witnesses said the assailant – who appeared to be a teenager – entered a prayer hall, opened fire with a gun, then blew himself up.
The attack came during the Shiites’ month of mourning, known as Muharram, which in recent years has seen heightened sectarian tensions. The rites climax this weekend, when Shiites gather for large processions that wind through crowded city centers, making them an easy target for attacks.
The assailant somehow circumvented strict security measures that the government had put in place for the mourning period, with worshipers frisked and sent through metal detectors before being allowed to enter Shiite prayer halls.
It was the third major bombing since the assassination Dec. 27 of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Blasts in Lahore and Karachi have claimed dozens of victims.
Pakistan is reeling from a spate of suicide bombings that accelerated after troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad last July and ousted the Sunni Muslim hardliners who occupied it. Thursday’s Peshawar bombing was the first to aim at the minority Shiite community.