KARACHI, Pakistan — Two suspected suicide bombers have attacked the most beloved Sufi shrine in Pakistan's largest city, killing at least eight people, wounding 65 others, and sending a stark reminder of the threat posed by Islamist militants to this U.S.-allied nation.
Angry mobs burned tires and torched buses in the aftermath of the bombings in Karachi late Thursday.
The attack came amid tensions between Washington and Islamabad over NATO helicopter incursions that have led Pakistan to close a key border crossing used to ferry supplies to Western troops in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. apologies over the incursions, one of which left two Pakistani soldiers dead, Islamabad said Thursday it had yet to decide when to reopen the crossing.
The explosions at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in southern port city of Karachi happened at the busiest time of the week when thousands typically visit to pray, distribute food to the poor and toss rose petals on the grave of the saint. The dead included two children.
Ghazi was an 8th century saint credited with bringing Islam to the region along the coast. Local legend has it that his shrine protects Karachi from cyclones and other sea-related disasters.
Pakistani Sufi sites have frequently been the target of Islamist militant groups, whose hardline interpretations of the religion leave no room for the more mystical Sufi practices that are common in this Sunni Muslim-majority nation of 175 million.
The first explosion took place as the suspected bomber was going through the metal detector before a long staircase leading to the main shrine area, said Babar Khattak, the top police official in Sindh province. The second blast took place about 10 seconds later, farther ahead of the metal detector, he said.
In the aftermath, an Associated Press reporter saw blood, flesh and shoes splattered at the shrine compound.
Mohibullah Khan, a 38-year-old manual laborer, was about to visit the shrine after evening prayers at a nearby mosque when the explosions occurred.
"I heard a huge bang and smoke billowed from there," Khan said. "I ran back toward the mosque and seconds after heard another big explosion. Then I moved to help the wounded and put six or seven of the crying ones in ambulances and police vehicles."
Gunshots could be heard throughout the chaotic city of 16 million-plus after the attack, while angry mobs torched at least two buses in the downtown area and burned tires on some roads.
Sindh province Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza said all city shrines were being sealed off.
Condemnations poured in from Pakistani leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari, who was staying elsewhere in the city at the time.
"We remain committed to fighting these murderers and expelling them from our land," Zardari aide Farahnaz Ispahani said in an e-mail.
In July, twin suicide bombers in the eastern city of Lahore attacked Data Darbar, Pakistan's most revered Sufi shrine, killing 47 people and wounding 180.
That attack – also on a Thursday – infuriated many Pakistanis, who saw it as an unjustified assault on peaceful civilians. In the aftermath, even amid fury against militants, many also blamed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan for fueling Islamist violence in their nation.
The frustration with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has increased over the past two weeks due to the NATO helicopter strikes on Pakistani territory.
The U.S. has apologized and expressed condolences Wednesday for the Sept. 30 attack that killed two Pakistan border guards, and said the helicopters mistook them for insurgents being pursued across the border from Afghanistan.
The apologies raised expectations that the Torkham border crossing along the famed Khyber Pass, closed to NATO convoys for the past week, could reopen very soon. But Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said at a news conference Thursday that authorities were still evaluating the situation and would make a decision "in due course."
Hundreds of trucks are stranded alongside the country's highways or stuck in traffic on the way to the one route into Afghanistan from the south that has remained open. Still NATO officials have insisted the border closure has not caused supply problems for troops in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot and Rasool Dawar in Islamabad contributed to this report.