Twelve people were killed and at least 202 wounded when an explosion ripped through a packed mosque in Iran’s southern city of Shiraz during prayers by a prominent cleric, officials said on Sunday.
Uncertainty surrounded the cause of Saturday evening’s blast, which some officials insisted was an accident but others said could have been caused by a bomb.
The massive explosion in the men’s section of the mosque took place at around 9:00 pm (1630 GMT) during an evening prayer sermon by prominent local cleric Mohammad Anjavinejad, Iranian media reported.
Twelve people were killed and 202 wounded, the governor of the local Fars province, whose name was given as Rezazadeh, told state television.
“The incident could have happened as a result of negligence. A while ago at this site there was an exhibition commemorating the (1980-1988) Iran-Iraq war,” provincial police chief Commander Ali Moayeri told the Fars news agency.
“The munitions left at the site could have caused this explosion,” he added. The agency said he ruled out an act of sabotage.
Television pictures showed shards of glass and piles of debris inside the mosque and huge crowds gathered to await news of loved ones. Casualties, their clothes soaked with blood, filled local hospitals.
“Last night’s incident… was definitely an accident. We are studying the cause, but as of now but main reason is not clear,” Deputy Interior Minister Abbas Mohtaj told the Mehr news agency.
Other sources indicated that the possibility of a militant attack had not been ruled out, however.
“A judicial probe has been launched to determine the cause of the explosion and the possibility of sabotage,” Shiraz prosecutor Jaber Baneshi told IRNA.
Shiraz MP Mohammad Nabi Roodaki said the explosion could have been caused by unknown people deliberately setting off the munitions used in the Iraq war exhibition, the student ISNA news agency reported.
Anjavinejad himself cast doubt on the accident theory, saying that the force of the blast and the presence of an individual who planted a package before his sermon suggested otherwise.
“Some parties are trying to show this was an accident to portray the city as safe. But it is their duty to implement security,” he told the Alef news website.
One of Iran’s most famous cities, Shiraz is popular with foreign tourists because of its proximity to important ancient sites from the Achaemenian Empire that ruled much of Asia from 550-331 BC.
Fars said the death toll was set to rise because many victims were in a critical condition.
Iranian media quoted eyewitnesses as saying the explosion caused a cloud of dust to billow into the sky and caused panic among worshippers.
There have been deadly attacks in Iran’s border cities with ethnic minority populations in recent years, but a strike in a non-frontier city such as Shiraz would be unprecedented.
Such attacks in Iran have become extremely rare over the past two decades, although the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution saw a succession of bombings in Tehran by outlawed opposition groups.
The last major attack was a February 2007 strike by suspected Sunni rebels in the city of Zahedan in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan border province that killed 13 elite Revolutionary Guards.
According to the reports, before Saturday’s blast Anjavinejad had been preaching against Wahhabism — the ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. He is reported to be a vehement critic of Wahhabis.
In his sermon he also attacked Bahais, who were once Iran’s biggest non-Muslim minority by far and who believe in the unity of all religions, Fars reported.
Bahais are deemed to be apostate by the Islamic republic, and their beliefs are not recognised by the constitution.