TWO Taliban suicide bombers struck one of Pakistan's most important Sufi Muslim shrines yesterday, killing more than 40 people and wounding 100.
Another bomber was wounded when his explosive vest partially detonated, and he was arrested along with a fourth militant who was seized before he could attack, police said.
The attack on Sakhi Sarwar ended a months-long respite in a relentless militant campaign against the shrines founded by ancient adherents of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that sees dancing, chanting and visiting holy sites as expressions of devotion to God.
Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the assault.
The attack took place as worshippers were celebrating the anniversary of the death of Sufi Muslim's founder with music, meditation and other practices abhorred by Islamist militant groups
"It was a huge blast. People were running in panic," said Fida Bakhsh, 42, a stall-holder at the shrine site. "It was horrible. We were running over bodies and blood."
"I was just a few yards away from the place where the blast happened," said another witness, Faisal Iqbal. "People started running outside the shrine. Women and children were crying and screaming. It was like hell."
Twenty of the wounded were in critical condition, emergency co-ordinator Natiq Hayat said last night..
From one-room tombs in small villages to large complexes in major cities, Sufi shrines are visited by millions of Pakistanis.
But the sites are anathema to the Pakistani Taleban, al-Qaeda and other militant followers of the austere brand of Wahabi Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.
Followers of the Barelvi school of Islam, one of the two main branches of the religion in Pakistan, consider themselves the custodian of the shrines. They have been one of the main targets of Islamist militants since some of their leaders issued edict calling suicide bombings religiously illegitimate.
Several thousand people were marking the 942nd anniversary of the death of the saint Ahmad Sultan, better known as Sakhi Sarwar, at his shrine in the Dera Ghazi Khan district of Punjab province when the bombers struck crowds waiting outside, government administrator Iftikhar Saho said.
A stampede followed the bombings, but it was not immediately clear if that caused any casualties.
Local and foreign Islamist militants have carried out hundreds of attacks in Pakistan over the last three years, targeting government buildings and security forces, Western targets like embassies and hotels as well as religious minorities and Muslim sects they consider heretical.
An assault on the shrine of Pir Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the city of Karachi killed 47.The attacks have angered many Pakistani Muslims, who see visiting saints' shrines as the best way to communicate to God.
The government and the army have tried to crack down on the militants, but have struggled to unite the nation against the threats. Many Islamist politicians do not publicly criticise the militants, preferring to spread conspiracy theories that American or Indian agents are responsible.