20 Shi'ites taken off Pakistan bus, shot

2012-08-16 18:17
A man comforts a family member mourning the death of his relative, at a local hospital in Mansehra, Pakistan. (Aqeel Ahmed, AP)

A man comforts a family member mourning the death of his relative, at a local hospital in Mansehra, Pakistan. (Aqeel Ahmed, AP)

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Peshawar - Gunmen dragged off 20 Shi'ite Muslims travellers and killed them at point blank range in Pakistan on Thursday, the third such incident in six months, officials said.

The attack happened in the northwestern district of Mansehra as the bus was travelling between Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani army is headquartered, and the mainly Shiite northern city of Gilgit.

Officials said it was ambushed in the hills of Babusar Top, around 160km north of the capital Islamabad, although they differed over details of the incident.

"Ten to 12 people wearing army uniform stopped the bus and forced some people off the bus," said Khalid Omarzai, administration chief in Mansehra.

"After checking their papers, they opened fire and at least 20 people are reported to have been killed. This is initial information and the final toll may go up. They are all Shi'ites," he said.

Local police official Shafiq Gul told AFP that the gunmen were masked, but said the victims were pulled from three separate vehicles in the district, which neighbours the Swat valley, a former Taliban stronghold.

"They stopped three vehicles, searched them and picked up people in three batches of five, six and nine and shot them dead. They were all Shiites," he said.

Mansehra police chief Sher Akbar Khan put the toll at 19, saying the attackers had worn military commando uniforms when they opened fire at around 06:00 [01:00 GMT].

"They intercepted three buses, took people out and checked their ID cards and later sprayed bullets at them," Khan said.

Step up security

Sectarian violence linked to Gilgit, a popular tourist destination for wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates who live in the country, has increased in recent months.

It is the capital of Pakistan's far northern Gilgit-Baltistan region and is popular with mountaineers as a gateway to the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges.

Angry mobs burnt tyres and blocked roads in some parts of the city to protest against the killings as extra police patrolled deserted streets and markets closed, said an AFP reporter in Gilgit.

The chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Syed Mehdi Shah, called an emergency meeting of top officials and ordered them to step up security and demanded the immediate arrest of the killers, a spokesperson said.

The road from Babusar to Gilgit has been closed indefinitely, the local government added.

On 28 February, gunmen in military fatigues hauled 18 Shi'ite Muslim men off buses travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit in the northern district of Kohistan, shooting them dead in cold blood.

On 3 April, a Sunni Muslim mob dragged nine Shi'ite Muslims from buses and also shot them dead in the town of Chilas, about 80km south of Gilgit.

Human rights groups have heavily criticised Pakistan for failing to crack down on sectarian violence between the country's majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite communities that has killed thousands.

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