TEHRAN (AFP) — Ten people were killed and at least 160 wounded when an explosion ripped through a mosque in Iran's southern city of Shiraz during evening prayers by a prominent cleric, officials said Sunday.
Initial reports said the explosion late Saturday was caused by a bomb but there was later uncertainty over its cause, with top regional officials insisting the blast had not been an attack but an accident.
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 local cleric Hojatoleslam Anjavinejad, the Fars news agency quoted local officials as saying.
State news agency IRNA, quoting emergency services, said that 160 people had been wounded and 10 killed in the blast, raising previous tolls.
"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," Commander Ali Moayeri, police chief of Fars province, told Fars news agency.
"The munitions left at the site could have the been the reason for this explosion," he added. The agency said he ruled out any act of sabotage.
Television pictures showed shards of glass and piles of debris at the site of the blast while huge crowds gathered to await news of loved ones.
"Initial surveys have proved that no bomb was involved and therefore there have been other probable causes," the governor of the local Fars province, Ebrahim Azizi, was quoted as saying by IRNA.
Commander Zamani, the head of Shiraz security forces, had said late Saturday that the explosion had been caused by a bomb.
Fars said that the death toll was set to rise as many of the victims were in a critical condition.
There have been deadly attacks in Iran's border cities with ethnic minority populations in recent years but any such a strike in a non-frontier city such as Shiraz would be unprecedented in recent decades.
"Around 9:15 pm, after the sermon, the sound of an explosion resounded in the section reserved for men and a cloud of dust billowed up to the sky," witness Saideh Ghorbani, 20, told the agency.
"There was a huge blast and the whole place lit up. Everyone started shouting and screaming and tried to help each other," another witness, Marzian Mohammadnejad, told English language channel Press-TV.
Deadly attacks in Iran have become extremely rare events in the past two decades, although the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution were marked by a succession of bomb blasts in Tehran by outlawed opposition groups.
The last major attack in Iran was a February 2007 strike by suspected Sunni rebels in the city of Zahedan in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan border province that killed 13 members of the elite Revolutionary Guards.
That attack was the deadliest such strike to have hit the Islamic republic in years.
Hojatoleslam Anjavinejad, whose first name was not given, had been preaching against Wahhabism -- the ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
In his sermon, he had also attacked Bahais, a group who were once by far Iran's biggest non-Muslim minority and believe in the unity of all religions, Fars reported.
However, they are deemed as apostate by the Islamic republic and their beliefs are not recognised by the constitution.
The centre of the blast was the Rahpouyan cultural centre that is part of the mosque, located in a residential quarter in the centre of the city, reports said.
Shiraz is one of Iran's most famous cities and a popular destination for foreign tourists due to its proximity to important ancient sites from the Achaemenian Empire that ruled much of Asia from 550-331 BC.
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