PESHAWAR, Pakistan A suicide bomber fired gunshots then blew himself up at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, killing nine people and wounding at least 20 others, authorities and witnesses said.
The blast came as minority Shiite Muslims prepared to mark the Ashoura festival, which is often marred by sectarian violence involving rival Sunnis.
Arshad Ali, whose brother died in the blast, said the attacker was a man about 18 years old who walked into the crowded Imambargah Qasim Baig mosque, opened fire with a pistol and then blew himself up.
"People present there tried to stop him. He took out a pistol, shot three times and then blew himself up," Ali said, wailing and beating his chest in grief.
It was not immediately clear whether any of the dead or wounded were hit by the gunfire.
Peshawar police chief Tanvir Sipra said nine people including one policeman who tried to stop the bomber from entering the mosque were killed and a few policewomen were among the wounded.
A crowd of enraged Shiites, crying and beating their chests, prevented an Associated Press reporter from reaching the scene. Police also had difficulty approaching the mosque.
The blast in Peshawar occurred when the Imambargah Qasim Baig mosque was crowded with worshippers.
Ashoura, which falls this weekend, is the culmination of Shiite rites during the holy month of Muharram when they mourn the seventh century death of the prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hussein an event that led to the split in Islam between the Shiite and Sunni sects.
Shiites stage processions and beat their bare backs with chains and blades, bloodying themselves in a sign of penitence. While most Shiites and Sunnis live peacefully together in this overwhelmingly Islamic nation of 160 million people, extremist groups from both sides are blamed for attacks.
Such violence breaks out during Muharram each year. In 2005, about 50 people were killed when a bomb ripped through a Shiite shrine in southwestern Pakistan.
Sunnis outnumber Shiites by about four to one in Pakistan.
In a prerecorded appearance on state television, aired late Thursday, President Pervez Musharraf described suicide attackers as "mad" and misguided into thinking they were serving Islam.
Near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, dozens of Pakistani troops abandoned an outpost on Thursday after receiving threats from Taliban militants, according to an intelligence official and an insurgent spokesman. The army denied their accounts.
If the seizure of the fort is confirmed, it would raise questions about the U.S.-allied government's ability to control the frontier area, where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters responsible for rising attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are known to flourish.
The intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the paramilitary troops fled the roadside post without a fight after the militants warned them to vacate or face attack.
The official, who was in the area, said the troops already had reached a military base in the nearby town of Jandola.
Maulvi Mohammed Umar, a purported militant spokesman, said the troops surrendered after 500 fighters surrounded the post.
"We released them (the troops) under the spirit of Islam," he said by telephone from an undisclosed location. "The Taliban have now hoisted their white flag on the fort."
But the army denied the fort had fallen.
"I strongly contradict this news and this post in our control," said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who was in the capital, Islamabad. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting reports.