City police chief dismissed after mosque attack

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

QUETTA, Pakistan -- A city police chief and two other officers have been dismissed for security lapses that allowed four attackers to storm a mosque and kill as many as 50 Shiite Muslim worshippers, a top police official said Monday.

The government, meanwhile, said it was looking into whether India was behind the assault.

Seventeen people have been arrested in the raids stemming from the assault but the attackers, who were killed, have not been identified and their motives remain unclear.

Previously Pakistan said it was investigating the possibility that al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives hiding out along the nearby Afghan border regions may have been responsible.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of the involvement of the foreign agencies or foreign agents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan told reporters. "We do not have any proof yet, no evidence."

India denied any involvement. "Any report that India is involved in this is totally baseless," said Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry in New Delhi.

The two nuclear-armed rivals frequently accuse each other of orchestrating acts of terrorism. Pakistan has expressed concern about the diplomatic missions India recently opened in the Afghan cities of Kandahar and Herat and in Zahedan, Iran.

The attack came Friday as President Pervez Musharraf was in France on the last leg of a trip that also took him to the United States, Britain and Germany.

People at the mosque complained there were no police present at the time.

Quetta police chief Rehmatullah Niazi has been dismissed, along with two of his officers, said Shoaib Suddle, police chief for the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Quetta is Baluchistan's capital. He cited security lapses at the mosque but did not elaborate.

The attackers hurled grenades and sprayed worshippers with bullets as they prayed. Security guards killed three attackers and a fourth died later in a hospital.

"Our first concern is to identify the bodies of these terrorists," Suddle said in a telephone interview.

Some Shiite leaders said they were not Pakistani, but did not identify their nationality.

The victims were ethnic Hazaras -- a minority that also lives in Afghanistan and was often at odds with the Taliban during their rule that ended in 2001 following a U.S.-led war.

Friday's attack came just weeks after pamphlets threatening attacks by Taliban suicide squads surfaced in Spinboldak, an Afghan town near Quetta. They were signed by Mullah Akhtar Usmani, formerly the Taliban military commander.

A moderate Shiite leader said the government should tighten its ban on extremist Sunni Muslim groups, noting that some of them kept functioning after merely changing their names.

"The government should take the groups working with new names into an iron grip and ban them," said Mohammed Ali Khan, Baluchistan head of the Shiite organization Tehreek-e-Jafria.

Khan didn't single out any groups, but Jaish-e-Mohammed, which now operates as Khudamul Islam, is one of the groups banned by President Pervez Musharraf when he clamped down on Muslim extremism following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The group is suspected of involvement in attacks targeting Christians and Westerners in Pakistan.

Shiite Muslims account for about a third of Quetta's 1.2 million population. The rest are mostly Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Pakistan. It was the third attack in the past month against Hazara Muslims in Quetta.

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