For Pakistan’s embattled Shia community, a bloody 2012 ends on a sombre note. The penultimate day of the outgoing year saw 19 Shia pilgrims killed in a massive car bomb attack in Mastung district, some 60 kilometres west of Quetta.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, more than 320 Shia community members have been killed in targeted attacks in Pakistan in 2012.
On Sunday morning, sectarian extremists detonated a car bomb near a convoy of buses taking 180 Shia pilgrims to Iran, killing at least 19 people and wounding 25 – some of them critically.
Officials said the blast occurred as the three buses were overtaking a car on the main Quetta-Taftan Highway in the Dringhar area of Mastung district. Two vehicles of Levies Force – tribal police – were escorting the convoy, officials added.
The blast triggered a fire on one of the buses, according to witnesses. “The bus next to us caught fire immediately,” said 60-year-old pilgrim Hussein Ali “We tried to save our companions but were driven back by the intensity of the heat.”
Another pilgrim Jan Danish recalled the grisly scene. “The bus was on fire, and people inside were crying for help,” he said. “We managed to rescue 10 – while the rest were burnt to death.”
Home Secretary Captain (Retd) Akbar Hussain Durrani said the bomb was remotely detonated. “It was not a suicide attack. The device was planted on a car parked by the roadside,” he told The Express Tribune. Bomb Disposal Squad officials added that the car was rigged with 70 to 80 kilogrammes of explosives.
The region’s top administrator confirmed the casualties. The injured included four women and some children, he added. “Medics, however, are having trouble identifying the bodies, many of which have been charred beyond recognition,” Tufail Baloch, the deputy commissioner of Mastung, told The Express Tribune.
Edhi centre in-charge, Babul Khan said that they have moved 18 bodies to an Imambargah in the Alamdar Road neighbourhood of Quetta.
A Levies official said the powerful explosion was heard within a radius of several kilometres. “Two of the Levies personnel escorting the convoy also received injuries,” he added.
The pilgrims belonged to different parts of Punjab – including Lahore, Jang, Rahim Yar Khan and Khanewal – and they were going to Iran and Iraq for religious pilgrimage.
Soon after the attack, Levies and Frontier Corps personnel threw a security cordon around the site as rescuers ferried the casualties to the Bolan Medical Complex Hospital where a state of emergency was declared. Medics said some of the injured, including four women, were in a critical condition.
Jaish al Islami, a splinter group of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) sectarian extremist outfit, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s spokesperson, Ghazi Haq Nawaz, called up Quetta-based journalists from an undisclosed location and said his group carried out the Mastung attack.
It was the second deadliest attack on the Shia community in Mastung since late last year. On September 20, 2011, gunmen plucked 26 Hazara community pilgrims from an Iran-bound bus and shot them dead in the same district. The LeJ had claimed responsibility for the attack.
The stretch of Quetta-Taftan Highway passing through Mastung has become a hazard for Shia pilgrims. In September this year, three pilgrims were killed when their bus was bombed. In June, 13 pilgrims died in another bomb attack on a pilgrims’ bus.
Shia community bodies – including Hazara Democratic Party, Tahfuz-e-Azadari Council and Shia Ulema Council – denounced the latest “barbaric attack” and announced three days of mourning.
At a joint news conference, the community leaders Juma Asadi and Qayyum Nazar Changezai demanded the Supreme Court and the federal government bring perpetrators of violence against Shias to justice.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf condemned the bomb attack and directed Pakistan Air Force to send a C-130 plane to evacuate the bodies.
According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister Secretariat, Premier Raja also directed local authorities to provide best possible medical assistance to the injured. (With additional input from agencies)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2012.