In a chilling sectarian attack on Tuesday, sixteen men were hauled off buses in a northern district of Kohistan and shot dead in cold blood by unidentified assailants disguised in military fatigues.
Gunmen flagged down the buses, climbed on board and asked passengers for identification. They then proceeded to drag a group of men off the bus, stood them in a line by the roadside, and mercilessly sprayed them with bullets, a senior police official told The Express Tribune.
Fifteen out of the sixteen passengers killed were Shias.
According to sources, the outlawed terrorist group Jundallah has claimed responsibility for the attack. A commander of the group, Ahmed Marwat, contacted the media soon after the attack to claim responsibility.
Harban police station SHO Umer Khitab told The Express Tribune that one bus and three minibuses, carrying approximately 117 passengers, were travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit when 10 to 12 gunmen disguised in military fatigues blocked the vehicles at a deserted section of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The official went on to add that the assailants did not target women or children passengers. A criminal case has been registered against the unidentified assailants at Harban police station while heavy contingents of police have been deployed to apprehend the accused gunmen.
“The motive was sectarian. The gunmen were wearing army uniforms,” Mohammad Ilyas, the police chief in Kohistan told AFP.
“They checked the identity of the passengers, got the Shias off the vehicles and shot them dead,” Ilyas said, adding that the dead were all male.
Khan Muhammad, a local who claimed to be an eyewitness of the gory incident, said he noticed some unusual activity on the KKH while he was collecting firewood from the forest overlooking the highway. According to his eyewitness account, 12 to 14 men dressed as soldiers intercepted the Gilgit-bound passenger vehicles and shot a group of men with AK-47 assault rifles after tying their hands to their backs. The assailants, carrying hand grenades and rocket propellers, then hiked into the nearby hilly areas and resorted to aerial firing, Muhammad added.
Pakistan Muslim Legue-Nawaz MPA Abdul Sattar Khan linked the ambush to the murder of two Sunni Muslims a few days ago in Gilgit. “The people of the area had vowed they would take revenge,” Khan said.
The bus conductor of one of the vehicles, Nisar Ahmed, was also killed in the attack when he failed to convince the gunmen that was a Sunni Muslim. A police official, who recorded statements from the surviving passengers, said Nisar was shot dead when he erred in answer regarding Fajr prayers.
The destination of the bus was Gilgit, where the district administration imposed Section 144, ordered offices and schools to remain closed till Friday as a safety precaution, and advised residents to stay indoors, local administration chief Tariq Arqam said.
A man was killed while two others sustained bullet injuries in reprisal attempts following the Kohistan attack, police said. Obaidullah was gunned down in Jutial while two people were wounded in the Skawar area, a police official said.
Residents said Gilgit was tense and roads deserted. Shops in most areas were closed and traffic very thin.
Millat-e-Jaferia President Allama Ramzan Tauqeer condemned the incident while speaking to The Express Tribune, adding that the government must take action against those attacking Shia Muslims with the objective of serving anti-Pakistan elements.
“The government must ensure its writ and take those to task who are openly claiming responsibility for the attack,” Tauqeer said, attributing the attack to a conspiracy of sabotaging the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. The Shia community will observe mourning across the country on Wednesday, he said.
Provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said that “[terrorists] wanted to trigger sectarian violence in the country – adding that cash compensation will be given to the families of the victims.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari also strongly condemned Tuesday’s carnage.
(Additional input from AFP)
Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.