Source AP ©

Sectarian clashes leave at least 49 dead, 115 wounded in Pakistan's northwest

Sunni and Shiite Muslims exchanged gunfire Thursday in northwestern Pakistan villages, where a week of sectarian violence has left at least 49 people dead and others 115 wounded, an official said.

However, other reports suggested a much higher death toll. A local lawmaker told The Associated Press it was likely the worst ever sectarian fighting to hit the Kurram tribal agency, and that nearly 100 people may have died so far.

It wasn't immediately possible to reconcile the differing accounts. The insecurity of the remote area, near the border with Afghanistan, made it dangerous for journalists to travel there.

Fighting was continuing in three or four villages near the region's main town of Parachinar, where the violence broke out last Friday, said Arbab Mohammed Arif Khan, secretary for law and order in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal regions.

He said that so far, 49 people had died and others 115 were wounded.

The government - which has come under criticism for failing to curb the Sunni-Shiite clashes - is moving security forces to areas where fighting is still under way, Khan said. It has also sent a 40-member delegation of tribal elders to broker a peace.

Parachinar, which has a history of sectarian violence, itself was quiet Thursday but remained under round-the-clock curfew, he said.

The trouble began a week ago when unidentified people began shooting at Shiites near their mosque in the town, following days of brewing tensions over a rally organized by Sunnis to celebrate the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The schism between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to a seventh century battle over who was the true heir to Muhammad.

Syed Javed Hussain, a lawmaker from Parachinar, said that based on reports from residents, at least 100 people on both sides may have been killed and more than 150 wounded since the clashes began.

He said it was "possibly the worst violence" ever in the area. He criticized authorities for "not doing enough" and demanded army troops restore order.

Mohammed Arif, a Sunni Muslim from Parachinar, told The AP by phone that "trained men" from the two sects had been using heavy weapons since Friday.

"We also heard firing today, but the situation is comparatively better now," he said.

Since the violence broke out last week, they were feeling unsafe, Arif said.

Mujahid Hussain, a Shiite Muslim from Parachinar, claimed that Sunni militants from neighboring North Waziristan had arrived in the region after Friday's clashes to support their opponents.

"Our people saw the bodies of several Sunni militants, and they were from North Waziristan," he said. Hussain, however, would not say how many militants or local people died in the weeklong rots.

"It is anybody's guess," he said, adding the army backed by helicopter gunships had been attacking those areas near Parachinar, from where Sunni and Shiites were still firing rockets on each other's positions.

Sectarian violence has long blighted Pakistan, a Muslim country, where about 80 percent of the population are Sunnis and most of the rest are Shiites.

Both sects generally live in peace, but extremists on both sides launch attacks. In Kurram, a tribal region only partially under state control, weapons are freely available and members of each sect are heavily armed.

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