An explosion ripped through a Shia mosque in Pakistan on Friday, just as worshippers were gathering for prayers. Officials said the blast killed at least 49 people and wounded dozens more.
The incident underscored a growing tide of sectarian violence in the South Asian nation. Attacks against religious minorities have been on the rise in Pakistan, where Sunni armed groups often target mosques frequented by Shia, whom the groups do not consider to be true Muslims.
Police said it was unclear what caused the explosion during Friday prayers at the mosque in the busy center of Shikarpur, a city of about 150,000 in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh.
"We are trying to ascertain the nature of the blast," the city’s police chief Saqib Ismail Memon told Reuters. "A bomb disposal squad is examining the scene."
Dr. Shaukat Ali Memon, who heads the hospital in Shikarpur where the dead and wounded were taken, said on Pakistan state television that his facility was caring for 50 people, many severely injured. Patients were also transferred to nearby hospitals in the cities of Larkana and Sukkur, he added.
In a sign of how serious the explosion was, Memon appealed to residents to donate blood for the wounded.
Pakistani television showed area residents and worshippers frantically ferrying the dead and wounded to the hospital.
"Such attacks cannot lessen the spirit of the nation," said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in a statement released shortly after the explosion.
While Karachi has been the site of repeated bombings blamed on armed groups like the Pakistani Taliban, the rest of Sindh province has generally been much more peaceful.
But recent years have seen a trend of armed groups increasingly active in the central and northern part of the province, according to a new report by the United States Institute of Peace, a global security advocacy organization backed by the U.S. government.
The government has pledged to crack down on sectarian groups, reintroduce the death penalty, establish military courts to speed convictions and widen its military campaign in lawless tribal areas.
Still, Pakistan's religious minorities, among them Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus, say the government is doing little to alleviate their daily struggle against humiliation, discrimination and often violence.
Shia make up about a fifth of Pakistan's population of around 180 million. More than 800 Shia have been killed in attacks since the beginning of 2012, according to Human Rights Watch.