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Suicide bomb kills at least 23 in mosque

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A powerful suicide bomb ripped through a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Sialkot on Friday, killing at least 23 worshippers and wounding more than 60, Pakistani officials said.

Hospital workers said they had counted 27 dead and warned that the toll could rise still higher if more victims succumbed.

The attack came as President Pervez Musharraf returned from a visit to U.N. headquarters in New York and several European countries. It also came less than a week since Pakistani law enforcement agents shot to death Amjad Hussain Farooqi, who had been sought as a top terror suspect and operative for al-Qaida.

Musharraf issued a statement condemning the attack and promising no compromise in his campaign to rid the country of extremism and sectarian violence. "Terrorists have no religion and are enemies of mankind," he said.

No one took responsibility for Friday's suicide bombing, but Pakistani officials speculated that the attack could have been linked to the Farooqi killing last Sunday in southern Pakistan.

"Maybe, after the killing of Amjad Farooqi, this is an act of retaliation," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said by telephone Friday evening. "But let's see. No one has claimed responsibility yet. Investigations are under way."

Farooqi was accused of masterminding the two assassination attempts on the life of Musharraf last December and was also believed to have been involved in the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Musharraf, a staunch ally of President Bush's, has vowed to root out Islamic militancy from the country and has banned several extremist groups. On his orders, the Pakistan army has been trying to flush out al-Qaida suspects and sympathizers in the semiautonomous northwestern tribal areas straddling the border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistani authorities, fearing a militant backlash, put the country on high alert after Farooqi's killing, and they arrested at least 15 terror suspects in operations around the country.

Pakistani analysts said the terror attack Friday could have been planned to disrupt and destabilize the government and demonstrate the tenacity of extremists and their ability to strike back.

The suicide bombing, in the Zainabia mosque, in the Rangpura neighborhood of Sialkot, took place at 1:30 p.m., as worshippers were listening to the Friday sermon.

The police said hundreds were in the mosque at the time of the blast, which shattered windows, damaged walls and carved a 2-foot-deep crater in the floor. Body parts were strewn about, according to early reports.

A bomb disposal squad also defused a bomb found at the scene and recovered three electronic detonators, two nine-volt batteries and 60 feet of detonating cord, the police said.

Television showed images of injured worshippers, burned and scarred by shrapnel, being ferried to hospitals.

Residents of the eastern industrial city of Sialkot describe it as a tolerant place where Muslims of both Sunni and Shiite sects live in harmony.