GILGIT - Gunmen disguised in military fatigues hauled 18 Shia men off buses Tuesday and shot them dead in cold blood in a usually quiet region of Kohistan. A spokesman for a faction of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings.
Police said the attackers flagged down buses, climbed on board asking passengers whether they were Shia or Sunni, then dragged out the Shias and shot them.
Another eight people were wounded in the attack, including two women and three children. “The motive was sectarian. The gunmen were wearing army uniform,” Mohammad Ilyas, the police chief in Kohistan, told AFP after the attack near the town of Harban Nala, 130 miles north of the capital. The area, part of the famed Silk Road linking northern Pakistan to China, is populated by Sunni tribes. One bus and three minibuses were travelling from Rawalpindi to the northern town of Gilgit.“They checked the identity of the passengers, got the Shias off the vehicles and shot them dead,” Ilyas said. “The dead were all male.”
Kohistan administration chief, Aqal Badshah, said 18 people were killed by eight attackers armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing military dress.
The local people and private vehicles owners shifted the injured to Shatiyal due to absence of district hospital in Kohistan. According to hospital sources, condition of some injured people was serious and it was feared that death toll might rise. Battagram and Gilgit district hospitals are at a five-hour drive from the scene of the incident due to which people had to face difficulties in shifting the injured.
Heavy contingent of police and other security forces cordoned off the area after the attack and launched search operation.People of the area staged a protest against the incident. They blocked the road by burning tyres and demanded arrest of the culprits.
The Jandullah faction of the Taliban - one of the country’s deadliest and best organised militant groups - claimed responsibility.
“They were Shias and our mujahedeen shot them dead one by one after bringing them down from a bus,” said Ahmed Marwat, a purported commander, who called a reporter of an American news agency from an undisclosed location. Human rights groups have heavily criticised the government for failing to crack down on sectarian violence that has killed thousands. Local MP Abdul Sattar Khan linked the ambush to the murder of two Sunnis a few days ago in Gilgit.
“The people of the area had vowed they would take revenge,” Khan told AFP by telephone.
Some of Tuesday’s victims were from Gilgit, where the government ordered offices and schools to close as a safety precaution, and advised residents to stay indoors, local administration chief Tariq Arqam told AFP.
Residents said Gilgit was tense and roads deserted. Shops in most areas were closed and traffic very thin, they added. Security in six districts of Gilgit-Baltistan was put on high alert.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik constituted a joint investigation team to probe the incident. The probe team headed by DIG Police Hazara Division will include representatives from ISI, FIA, IB and police.
The probe team has been asked to complete its report on the incident within three days.
Provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain blamed the attack on militants.
“The people behind this attack are terrorists. They wanted to trigger sectarian violence in the country. We don’t want to go into the details because we don’t want them to succeed in their nefarious designs,” he said.
“We will give cash compensation to the families of the victims. The bodies of the dead have been sent to Gilgit for burial,” he added.
Authorities had earlier insisted militants were not active in the area, although Kohistan borders Swat, where Pakistan in 2009 managed to put down a two-year Taliban insurgency.