Suspected Sunni extremists opened fire on Shiite Muslims traveling through southwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing 13 people in the latest apparent sectarian attack to hit the country, police said.
Sunni militants with ideological and operational links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban have carried out scores of bombings and shootings against minority Shiites in recent years, but the past couple weeks have been particularly bloody.
The gunmen who attacked Tuesday were riding on motorbikes and stopped a bus carrying mostly Shiite Muslims who were headed to work at a vegetable market on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, police official Hamid Shakeel told The Associated Press.
The attackers forced the people off the bus, made them stand in a line and then opened fire, said Shakeel. The dead included 12 Shiites and one Sunni, he said. Seven people were wounded - five Shiites and two Sunnis.
Local TV footage showed relatives wailing at the hospital where the dead and wounded were brought. One relative hugged a wounded man as another walked by, his clothes soaked with blood.
Shiites blocked the main highway on the outskirts of Quetta to protest the killings and set fire to the bus that took the dead and wounded to the hospital.
Sunni extremists carried out a similar attack on Shiite pilgrims traveling through Baluchistan about two weeks ago, killing 26 people.
Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state, with around 15 percent Shiite.
Tensions existed for decades
Most Sunnis and Shiites live together peacefully in Pakistan, though tensions have existed for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan became the scene of a proxy war between mostly Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, with both sides funneling money to sectarian groups that regularly targeted each other.
The level of sectarian violence has declined somewhat since then, but attacks continue. In recent years, Sunni attacks on Shiites have been far more common.
The groups have been energized by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which are also Sunni and share the belief that Shiites are infidels and it is permissible to kill them. The Sunni-Shiite schism over the true heir to Islam's Prophet Mohammed dates back to the seventh century.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of the country’s most ruthless Sunni militant groups, claimed responsibility for the attack in Baluchistan two weeks ago. One of its alleged leaders, Malik Ishaq, was released from prison on bail in July after being held for 14 years on charges, never proven, of killing Shiites.
Ishaq was re-arrested about a week ago after making inflammatory speeches against Shiites in the country. He was not charged but detained under a public order act, which means he can be held for three months.
It’s not clear whether Ishaq’s speeches have been connected to the recent wave of sectarian attacks.
Failure to address sectarian violence
London-based Amnesty International said the killings highlighted the failure of Pakistani authorities to address sectarian violence across the country.
“These are not random killings but demonstrate the deliberate targeting of the Shiitesby armed groups,” said Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, according to AFP.
“These attacks prove that without an urgent and comprehensive government response, no place is safe for the Shiites,” Zarifi added.
The rights group said it had recorded details of at least 15 attacks specifically targeting Shiites across Pakistan.
“Continued failure to address sectarian violence will only exacerbate the general breakdown in law and order in Pakistan,” it said.
Pakistan's own independent rights watchdog said the killers had been emboldened by a persistent lack of action against sectarian militant groups, which have been implicated in thousands of deaths in past years.
Tuesday's attack “exposes once again the diminishing writ of the state,” warned the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Baluchistan has become an increasing flashpoint for sectarian violence between Sunni Muslims and minority Shiites, who account for around a fifth of the country’s 167 million population.
On Sept. 20, gunmen killed 26 Shiite pilgrims after ordering them off their bus in Mastung, a district 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Quetta.
It was the deadliest attack on Shiites in Pakistan since Sept. 4, 2010 when a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people at a rally in Quetta.
Gunmen then killed another three Shiites on the outskirts of the city who were going to collect relatives who died in the first incident.