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Pakistani Officials Caution Against Large Outdoor Religious Ceremonies

Top officials in Pakistan are urging majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslim communities in the country not to hold outdoor religious meetings. The appeal comes a day after suspected Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida and Taliban extremist networks attacked a Shiite religious procession in an eastern city, killing at least 35 mourners and wounding more than 200 others.

Security is tight around religious sites in Pakistan, especially in the country's second-largest city of Lahore, where three back-to-back bombs Wednesday ripped through a big Shiite religious procession. Police said the deadly suicide blasts instantly killed about two dozen people, while others succumbed to injuries in hospitals.

Shiite leaders blamed the government for its alleged failure in tackling extremist forces in Pakistan.

The criticism prompted Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik to urge religious leaders to persuade their followers against holding public religious gatherings. He told reporters that religious processions at public places are soft targets for the extremist forces, and it is not possible for any law enforcement agency to provide foolproof security in such cases. Malik appealed for religious activities to be restricted to indoor or smaller places where the government can ensure the security.

The Pakistani minister said he believes militants linked to the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan were behind the attacks on the Shiite procession as part of their campaign to fuel sectarian violence and destabilize the government.

While Pakistan has banned several Islamic militant groups in recent years, critics said some of the outfits have re-emerged with new names, and the government's reluctance to crack down on them is encouraging extremist forces in the country.

Tasneem Noorani is the former federal interior secretary and an expert on security affairs. "They have to go to the root cause. They have to go to where these proscribed banned organizations are operating under different names. They have to have a zero tolerance for going to the source where these people are grouping, where these people are training. And unless they go for that I do not think they will be able to achieve the desired results," said Noorani.

The suicide attacks in Lahore took place a day after the United States charged the TTP's leadership in the plot that killed seven American intelligence officers at a U.S base across the border in Afghanistan.

Washington also added the Pakistani Taliban group to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The United States also has offered rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of the TTP chief, Hakeemullah Mehsud, and his deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman.

Critics of the Pakistani intelligence agencies have long accused them of having links to the militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.

Interior Minister Malik repeatedly has dismissed the allegations, and said his country welcomes Washington's decision to add the Pakistani Taliban to its terrorist group list and to restrict its leaders from international travel.

"They are already working against Pakistan," said Malik. "They are working against the people of Pakistan. The American friends know very well that we are suffering in their hands. So I do not think there is going to be anything [like more pressure] added, rather it is a help to us that they will not be able to move in the world."

Pakistani security forces have conducted major offensives against Taliban and al-Qaida militants believed to be hiding in the country's northwestern tribal regions, which border Afghanistan. The militants have responded with major suicide and other terrorist attacks across the country killing thousands of people, including security forces.

The attacks in Lahore came at a time when Pakistan is trying to cope with the worst floods in the country's history. Thousands of security officers are currently engaged in rescue and relief operations.