The Pakistani government has imposed a rare curfew in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, after sectarian clashes during a Shia religious commemoration killed at least eight people.

Shoaib Bin Aziz, an official with the government of Punjab province where Rawalpindi is located, said on Saturday that residents were ordered to stay in their homes. The curfew is to remain in effect until midnight on Sunday.

Soldiers and police were patrolling the streets to enforce the measure in the city, which neighbours Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

All entry points into Rawalpindi were blocked, resulting in traffic chaos on Saturday morning that choked parts of the highways leading to Islamabad.

The eight were killed after clashes broke out at a Shia Muslim religious procession marking Ashoura on Friday. The clash began when the procession passed a Sunni Muslim seminary, where several people were shouting insults at the passing mourners.

Some marchers, angered by the insults, dragged a number of people out of the seminary and killed them, police officer Afzal Hussain told the AFP news agency.

More than 40 people were also injured in the ensuing clashes, with dozens of shops in an adjacent market set on fire, authorities said.

"So far we can confirm the death of eight people from the violence. We received a total of 44 injured people and 13 of them had gunshot wounds," Qasim Khan, a doctor at Rawalpindi's district hospital, told AFP.

Day of mourning

Police tried to stop the clash, but officers were wounded as the two sides threw stones at each other, Hussain said.

An army unit based in Rawalpindi eventually reached the scene and established control.

The Shia Muslims were marking Ashoura, an annual Shia day of mourning to mark the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Many join long processions where they flagellate, beat or cut themselves to show their grief.

Rawalpindi is a few minutes' drive from the capital, Islamabad, and home to the headquarters of Pakistan's army.

Further details of the attack were difficult to ascertain since the government suspended mobile phone services in much of Pakistan during Ashoura, in a bid to try and foil suicide bombers, who have attacked such gatherings in the past and regularly threaten Pakistan's Shia population.

Attacks on Pakistan's Shia, who make up about a fifth of the 180 million population, have worsened in recent years.

Most of the attacks are the work of Sunni Muslim fighters, many of whom are affiliated with banned groups such as the Taliban or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which wants to drive all Shia Muslims out of Pakistan.

Hundreds of Shia Muslims were killed in bombings and other attacks last year, including children shot on their way to school and doctors heading for work.

Source: Agencies