Gunmen target Shiite pilgrims in Pakistan, killing 26

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 20, 2011 

ISLAMABAD — Gunmen pulled Shiite Muslim pilgrims off a bus Tuesday in Pakistan's western Baluchistan province, lined them up and opened fire, killing at least 26 people in an apparent sectarian attack, witnesses and Pakistani officials said.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim group allied with the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida that's officially banned by the Pakistani government, claimed responsibility for the executions, Pakistani news media reported. The group is particularly active in Baluchistan, a sparsely populated province that the pilgrims were traveling through on their way to Iran.

Anti-Shiite attacks are another facet of the violence in Pakistan, but it gets less attention than the government's fight against the Pakistani Taliban. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban are closely allied with al Qaida, and extremists from both groups often cross over into each other.

The attack took place at about 5 p.m. on a lonely road in a desert area in Mastung district, about 30 miles south of the provincial capital, Quetta. A bus carrying about 50 pilgrims was intercepted by a pickup that blocked its way, driver Khushal Khan said at the scene.

Eight to 10 attackers carried Kalashnikov automatic rifles and rocket launchers, he said.

"They shouted for us all to get off (the bus). Then they started firing. I just ran for it," Khan said.

The road is a regular route for Shiite pilgrims. The bus driver said the authorities hadn't provided any security escort and that help took an hour to arrive.

Television pictures later showed bloody corpses being picked up off the ground and stacked in ambulances and other vehicles.

An official with the district administration, Shah Nawaz Nosharwani, put the death toll at 26, with six more wounded.

"We do provide security to buses, but we didn't to this one. We didn't know about it," Nosharwani.

Shortly afterward in Quetta, at least two Shiites were killed when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle. Pakistani media reported that the victims were relatives on their way to the scene of the bus attack.

Shiite Muslims make up around one-fifth of Pakistan's population. Conflict with the majority Sunnis kicked off in the 1980s, after the Shiite revolution in neighboring Iran and a state-sponsored Islamization drive in Pakistan by the military ruler at the time, Zia-ul-Haq, that aggressively supported Sunnis.

Many of those Sunni sectarian groups later morphed into government terrorist forces, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Earlier this year, courts freed the group's leader, Malik Ishaq, dropping dozens of murder charges for lack of evidence.

Al Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan follow an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam that regards Shiites as heretics. At least 10 Shiiites were killed in a suicide bombing near Quetta on the Muslim festival of Eid on Aug. 31. Quetta, which hosts the Afghan Taliban leadership, also houses a large community of ethnic Hazara, who are Shiites, the same community that's a major ethnic group in Afghanistan.

Government authority is weak in Baluchistan, the site of a long-running nationalist revolt by ethnic Baluch.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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