At least 18 people were killed and five injured in a massive blaze that erupted after gunmen opened fire on a passenger van at a roadside petrol stall in Khuzdar district of the volatile Balochistan province on Friday.
Gunmen riding motorcycles opened fire on the passenger van with automatic weapons, police said, adding that the hail of bullets ignited petrol drums and triggered an inferno.
There were conflicting reports about the number of attackers. Sabihuddin, the district police officer (DPO), said two gunmen were involved in the attack that took place in the Jahalawan Complex area, on the outskirts of Khuzdar.
However, another police official differed. “Four attackers riding motorbikes opened fire on these petrol stalls and ran away after the attack,” senior local official Abdul Mansoor Kakar told AFP.
Abdul Rahim, an assistant sub-inspector, told The Express Tribune that the van was en route to Khuzdar village from Khuzdar city.
A number of stalls selling petrol smuggled from Iran were engulfed in the fire, Kakar added. “Some stallholders were among the dead.”
DPO Sabihuddin confirmed the fatalities and said the bodies were shifted to the Divisional Headquarters Hospital and Combined Military Hospital for autopsy. “Eight women and four children were among the dead,” he told The Express Tribune.
Doctor Akbar Harifal, the top administrative official in Khuzdar, confirmed the death toll, which rose sharply from a previous tally of seven.
Eleven of the 18 bodies have been identified, police official Kakar said, but hospital officials reported that some were charred beyond recognition.
DPO Sabihuddin said five nearby petrol stalls were also burnt to ashes and another four were damaged. “The blaze has been doused,” he said, blaming the losses on the unavailability of fire engines.
Balochistan has been wrecked by tribal, ethnic, sectarian and militant violence since 2004. No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack and police said they were investigating.
Preliminary investigation ruled out terrorism, suggesting that it could be a case of family/tribal feuds.
Violence has surged this year in Balochistan and human rights activists have raised concerns about an increase in targeted killings in the province.
In September, Human Rights Watch said more than 100 people had been killed in sectarian attacks this year.
President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday condemned the Khuzdar killings as a dastardly act of those elements who have no regard for human life.
Reiterating the government’s resolve to fighting the twin menaces of extremism and terrorism, the president said such cowardly acts could not deter the government from fighting the war against terror.
The president also directed the concerned authorities to provide best medical facilities to the injured.
(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM AGENCIES)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2012.