Authorities clamped a curfew in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and called out the army after 16 people were killed and dozens wounded in one of the worst bouts of sectarian violence in the region.
Clashes erupted between Shia and Sunni communities early Tuesday after masked motorcyclists attacked a rally staged by the G-B chapter of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat [ASWJ] to protest the detention of one of its leaders.
According to witnesses, when protesters reached near the Gari Bagh neighbourhood of Gilgit city, masked motorcyclists hurled a hand grenade at them, resulting in the death of five. Many more were wounded. Some witnesses said an Elite Force policeman threw the grenade at the protesting crowd.
A local police official, however, gave a different account. “Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a group of Sunnis while they were appealing to people to shut their shops in response to a strike call,” police official Ali Sher told AFP. He added that officers were investigating reports of a hand grenade attack.
After the grenade attack, the area resounded with intense gunfire and volunteers shifted the injured to nearby hospitals in the hail of bullets. Medics said 10 of the injured were in critical condition.
Officials confirmed that six people were killed in the attack including an official of the Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) Scout and many more wounded.
When the news of grenade attack reached the Sunni-majority Chilas town, vengeful mob ran amok, burning passenger buses and firing at Shia community people. Officially, 10 deaths were confirmed in Chilas – while many more were injured.
Over 250 Shias were also taken hostage in Chilas. However, later in the evening they were handed over to the G-B administration.
As the back-and-forth violence continued, at least 20 people working in Nagar town were reportedly abducted and shifted to unidentified locations by the locals. However, there was no official confirmation of this.
In the meanwhile, violence spread to parts of Gilgit town, including Baseen, Amphery, Jutial, Nargal, Kashrote, Majini Muhalla Barmas and Khomer, pushing the security forces to the barracks.
As firing intensified, announcements were made from the main Sunni mosque, asking people to refrain from violence. At about 10 am announcements were made officially about the imposition of a curfew. People were asked to stay indoors or else be at risk of being shot.
However, the announcement made little impact as heavy gunfire kept on rattling the city till 4 pm when the military finally took over the city.
Gilgit has a long history of sectarian violence starting from as early as the 1970s. The recent bout of sectarian unrest was triggered by the targeted massacre of 16 Shia passengers of buses in the Kohistan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in February.
On the advice of the top Shia cleric in the region, transporters introduced a new Shia-only transport service on a new route in Gilgit city. In retaliation, the Sunnis also created new routes for their community.
On Sunday, police cancelled the route permits of the sect-based buses and impounded them on Sunday. Shia protesters called a strike against the move.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2012.