Pakistan claims killing of Shiite massacre mastermind

Pakistani officials said Monday they had killed the mastermind behind a suicide bombing at a mosque which killed 61 Shiite Muslims last month.

The January 30 blast hit the mosque in the Shikarpur district of the southern province of Sindh as hundreds of worshippers attended Friday prayers.

"We have been chasing Usman Saifullah Kurd since a long time. We finally got him yesterday and he was killed in the exchange of fire," Akbar Hussain Durrani, home secretary of the southwestern province of Baluchistan where Kurd was killed, told AFP.

"Kurd was a key commander of the Sunni hardliner group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and was involved in the Shikarpur attack and many other major attacks in Sindh and Baluchistan provinces, particularly against the Shiites and Hazara communities," he added.

Durrani said security forces received a tip that Kurd was having lunch at a restaurant in the city of Quetta, Baluchistan's provincial capital, where the LeJ group is particularly active.

"Kurd and his accomplices fired at the forces when they entered the restaurant, and in retaliation was killed along with another accomplice," he said.

"Two soldiers were also injured in the operation while another militant was arrested alive."

A senior security official in Quetta said Kurd was the main instigator behind the Shikarpur assault, and confirmed the details of the raid.

Hundreds of Shiites from the Hazara ethnic group have been killed in numerous attacks by the LeJ in Baluchistan. The province is also rife with separatist militancy and is a no-go area for many Pakistanis.

The sectarian violence has however now spread to the rest of the country as well. On February 13 a total of 22 Shiite Muslims were killed in the northwestern city of Peshawar when three suicide bombers attacked their mosque during main Friday prayers.

The country has stepped up its fight against militants since Taliban gunmen massacred more than 150 people, most of them children, at a school in Peshawar in December.