Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistani Taliban militants pulled 22 Shiites off buses and gunned them down in a remote northern mountain pass on Thursday, in the latest iteration of a pattern of attacks targeting religious minorities.
In the remote district of Mansehra, at least a dozen militants dressed in military fatigues stopped three buses carrying passengers on a rugged road from Rawalpindi to Astore. The militants checked the identification papers of passengers, singled out the Shiites and then shot them dead at point-blank range, police officials said.
The victims were mostly young men returning to their villages for Id al-Fitr, the Islamic festival that marks the end of Ramadan.
“The area is very remote and desolate,” said Rina Saeed Khan, an environmental journalist who traveled through the same route back to Islamabad on Wednesday. “The road is an alternate to the Karakoram Highway,” she said, referring to a famed road built by Chinese engineers.
The Babusar Top, where the killings took place, lies two hours from Astore. “There is no cellphone coverage, and you see no villages during the four-hour drive on a dirt road,” Ms. Khan said.
The episode on Thursday was similar to an attack in February in which 18 Shiites were killed after a bus was ambushed on the Karakoram Highway in the mountainous Kohistan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Ms. Khan said that after the February attack, travelers began using this alternate route in Kaghan Valley, which was still considered safe despite its harsh terrain. “Obviously, militants kept track of it, and they knew that people were returning to their homes for Id al-Fitr,” she said.
The Darra Adam Khel faction of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Shiites, Reuters reported. “We have targeted them because they are enemies of Sunnis and conspire against us,” Mohammed Afridi, a spokesman for the faction, was reported as saying in a telephone interview. “We will continue such attacks in the future.”
In recent months, attacks on Pakistani Shiites have increased, particularly in northern regions. Analysts have increasingly criticized the government, saying it has allowed itself to be distracted from protecting the country’s religious minorities. The government is embroiled in political turmoil, with an increasingly assertive Supreme Court that has singled out senior officials.
Ms. Khan, the journalist, said that she found a lot of anger and resentment among the locals during her visit to several northern towns.
“People are very upset,” she said. “They are asking, ‘Where is the government? Where is the military?’ ”
“Locals say Sunnis and Shiites used to live in harmony 10 years ago,” she said. “Life is too tough there, and Shiites and Sunnis used to cooperate. Locals say it’s the outsiders who are doing the killings.”
The Pakistani military said Thursday that it had opened an investigation into a predawn attack by Taliban militants on the Kamra air force base in Punjab. There has been speculation that the military is planning an offensive in North Waziristan, a haven for the Taliban and operatives of Al Qaeda, and some analysts said that the attack could have been meant as a warning against military action.
“The Taliban are telling Pakistan’s leadership, ‘If you hit us here, we’ll hit you,’ ” said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.