By Maaz Khan (AFP) – Sep 20, 2011
QUETTA, Pakistan — Gunmen shot dead 26 Pakistani Shiite Muslim pilgrims travelling to Iran on Tuesday, the deadliest attack on the minority community in Pakistan for more than a year, officials said.
In a brutal assault, gunmen ordered pilgrims off their bus, lined them up and assassinated them in a hail of gunfire in Mastung, a district 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Quetta, the capital of the southwest Baluchistan province.
An hour after the first attack, unidentified gunmen killed another three Shiites on the outskirts of Quetta whom police said were relatives of victims of the first incident en route to collect their bodies.
"The attackers stopped the bus and forced the pilgrims to get off, lined them up and then opened fire," local deputy commissioner Saeed Imrani told AFP, referring to the first attack.
"The death toll has risen to 26. At least six people were wounded, four of them are in a critical condition," he added, after earlier saying 20 died.
Referring to the second incident, Hamid Shakil, a senior police officer in Quetta, told AFP by telephone: "Armed men ambushed their car. Three of them were killed and one was wounded. They were going to take the dead bodies."
Much of Pakistan, a key US ally in the war on Al-Qaeda and the 10-year fight against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, suffers from near daily Islamist militant violence.
Baluchistan has increasingly become a flashpoint for sectarian violence between Pakistan's majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shiites.
"It is an emergency-like situation. We are taking the dead and injured to hospitals. Twenty-six pilgrims were killed and six wounded," Shah Nawaz, another government official told private TV channel Geo.
The attack, confirmed as sectarian in nature by Pakistani officials, was the deadliest on Shiites in Pakistan since September 4, 2010 when a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people at a Shiite rally in Quetta.
The bus driver, Khushal Khan, recounted harrowing details to reporters for two Pakistani TV channels who quickly reached the scene.
"There was no security on our bus. Eight to 10 attackers armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers stopped the bus and forced all the passengers to get off," he said in comments broadcast by Geo television.
"Forty-five passengers were travelling. Some of them managed to escape. I also managed to escape," he said.
"The attackers then fled in their vehicle."
Pakistan private TV channel Express News broadcast footage of dead bodies lying in a pool of blood alongside discarded caps and shoes. Ambulances and rescue workers were shown recovering bodies on stretchers.
Shiite Muslims account for around a fifth of the country's 167 million population, which is dominated by Sunnis.
Oil and gas-rich, Baluchistan borders Afghanistan as well as Iran. It is also experiencing a surge in violence linked to separatists fighting for political autonomy and a greater share of profits, and Taliban militants.
On September 7, Taliban suicide bombers killed 27 people in Quetta, targeting the deputy chief of the Frontier Corps paramilitary after troops arrested an alleged senior Al-Qaeda leader in the Quetta suburbs.
One bomb detonated in a car outside Farrukh Shahzad's home, and the second attacker blew himself up inside the house, killing the deputy chief's wife and injuring him and at least one of his children.
Two days earlier, the military announced that Younis al-Mauritani had been arrested on suspicion of planning attacks on the United States, Europe and Australia, along with two other high-ranking operatives.
The worst Islamist militant violence in Pakistan is concentrated in the northwest, where Taliban gunmen earlier Tuesday stormed a checkpoint, killing one soldier and sparking clashes in which up to 20 militants died.
Officials said five soldiers and five civilians were also wounded after the militants attacked the Dabori post manned by paramilitary troops in the semi-autonomous tribal district of Orakzai.
Orakzai is one of seven districts in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt which the United States has described as the most dangerous region in the world and a global headquarters of Al-Qaeda.
The Pakistani military last year launched an operation against militants in Orakzai, which for two years was dominated by the Pakistani Taliban, blamed for most of the suicide and bomb attacks that routinely hit the country.
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