MOGADISHU (Reuters/AFP) - Masked gunmen killed seven Pakistani preachers at a mosque in Somalias Puntland region on Wednesday, residents and local officials said. Puntland is a base for pirates targeting the Gulf of Aden, but has been more peaceful than the rest of the failed Horn of Africa state, which Western security agencies say is a haven for insurgency in the region and beyond. Residents said the attack took place after early morning prayers at the mosque in Galkayo town and targeted a group of 25 mostly Pakistani sheikhs who had arrived in the semi-autonomous northern region on Tuesday. A police official said the preachers were dragged out of the mosque in Galkayo and killed a short distance away. Six Pakistanis died on the spot while another Pakistani died from his injuries in hospital. These men are preachers from Karachi, Pakistan, Galkayo chairman Hussein Abdullahi told Reuters by telephone. Puntland forces have now surrounded the area around the mosque to protect the other sheikhs. Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Said, a spokesman for the Ahlu Sunna religious movement that controls the area, condemned the killings, saying they were contrary to the teaching of Islam and all customary laws. Abdi Said said the murdered preachers belonged to a Muslim sect known as the Tabliq, which has never advocated violence. The town of Galkayo is on the border between the breakaway region and Somalia proper and is controlled by the Ahlu Sunna group, which has declared a holy war on the radical Shebab militia that controls much of southern and central Somalia. Ahlu Sunna accuses the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab of fostering violence across Somalia, where it has put the internationally backed transitional government of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed under siege. Ahlu Sunna says the Shebab has killed religious scholars, elders, traders and other opponents, labelling their victims enemies of Islam. Puntland is relatively peaceful and has been spared much of the violence which has wracked the Horn of Africa state since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre. However, tensions have been on the rise recently with the killing of Information Minister Warsame Abdi Shirwa in Galkayo last week. A spokesman for the Pakistani embassy in neighbouring Kenya said officials were still trying to determine the total number of casualties in the early morning attack. I can confirm we are getting reports of Pakistanis killed in Galkayo, in Puntland, the spokesman said. But we are still investigating. I cannot confirm exactly what happened. Yes this incident has taken place but we are not sure of the total number of casualties, he added. Residents said Wednesdays attack may have been driven by suspicion that the sheikhs were linked to al-Qaeda. Local Shabelle Media, however, said the mosque where they were staying often hosted members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a religious movement founded in India in 1926 that keeps a low public profile and says it does not get involved in politics. A spokesman for al Shebab told reporters in Mogadishu that the group was saddened by the killing of the religious scholars. They were preachers who spread Islam, said Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage. We shall get our revenge and get our hands on those who killed them. Let the Tablighi (preachers) also take up guns and fight the enemies. Violence in Somalia has killed more than 18,000 people since the start of 2007 and driven another 1 million from their homes.