Nine killed in Hyderabad mosque blast and police firing

Hyderabad, May 18 (IANS) Nine people were killed, including two in police firing to quell violence, after a bomb ripped through one of the city’s oldest mosques during Friday prayers. A nationwide alert was sounded in the aftermath of the blasts.

Thirty-five people were wounded in the blast in the 17th century Mecca Masjid in the old city area.

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Police confirmed two deaths when they opened fire to control an angry mob indulging in violence in the old city.

However, according to unconfirmed reports, the toll was 19 – nine from the blast and 10 in police firing.

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who cut short his Delhi visit to rush here tonight, visited the injured at Osmania Hospital.

Late in the evening, Andhra Pradesh Home Minister K. Jana Reddy hinted at the involvement of foreign terror groups, saying: “This is a very unfortunate incident. This is the handiwork of outsiders who want to shatter communal peace and harmony prevailing in the city.”

Director General of Police M.A. Basit, added, “This is a sophisticated mechanism and we believe that this capacity is not available in Hyderabad.”

The crude bomb, hidden in a tiffin box under a stone bench in the Mecca Masjid, exploded at 1.30 p.m. – probably set off from a cell phone just as thousands of worshippers prepared to conclude their namaaz, or weekly Friday prayers.

Police later found a cell phone that they suspect may have been used to trigger the blast.

The blast took place near the ‘wazu khana’ or water tank, where Muslims go through ablutions before offering prayers. Five people were killed on the spot while two died in hospital.

The central government issued a nation-wide alert and beefed up security in sensitive parts of southern India.

The death toll in the Mecca Mosque blast would have been higher, but three more bombs were detected and defused in the mosque premises within an hour of the explosion, officials said.

But reaction was swift across Hyderabad city, and particularly in the Old City, as crowds vented their anger.

At least 20 people, including five policemen, were also injured as crowds gathered in parts of the sensitive Old City and threw stones. Police and paramilitary force were deployed in several parts of the Old City and beyond as protestors took to streets, attacking buses and shops.

Shops and business establishments shut down in several parts of Hyderabad and its twin city Secunderabad and police intensified patrolling to prevent violence.

Reports of crowd violence came in from several parts of the Old City and other areas, including Mehdipatnam, Santosh Nagar, Erragadda and L.B. Nagar. Police also fired in the air to disperse a crowd which attacked shops near the mosque in the evening.

Panic-stricken worshippers gave their account of the incident.

“I heard a loud thud as we were about to complete the prayers. The Imam (head priest) asked people not to panic as people thought a tyre had burst,” said Rafeeq Ahmed, who was offering prayers inside the main building of the mosque.

“Seconds later, people were running in panic. I came out and saw human body parts strewn around and the injured were being shifted,” he told IANS.

As tension gripped the city, all of Andhra Pradesh was put on high alert and the city sealed.

“This is an intentional sabotage of the peace and tranquility of the state. We had some intelligence reports but this could be an act of anti-social elements,” said Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy at a hastily convened press conference in New Delhi before rushing back to Hyderabad.

The chief minister announced Rs.500,000 each ex-gratia for the kin of those dead and Rs.20,000 each for the injured.

Friday’s attack was the third major bombing of a mosque in the last year. In September last year, 31 people were killed in a bomb attack on a mosque in Malegaon in Maharashtra. In that attack, bombs mounted on bicycles exploded as devotees emerged from prayers.

“The attack has similarities to the September 2006 bombing of the mosque in Malegaon. That too happened on a Friday and now we will see if the explosives used are comparable,” said an intelligence official in New Delhi.

He added, however, that it was too early to speculate on who may have been behind the attack.