South Asia

Pakistani Shia pilgrims killed in gun attack on bus

Relatives of those killed in Tuesday's attack outside a Quetta hospital
Image caption The Shia community has in recent years been subjected to numerous attacks

At least 26 Shia Muslim pilgrims have been killed by a group of gunmen who opened fire on a bus in western Pakistan, officials said.

The pilgrims had been travelling through Mastung in Balochistan province on their way to the Iranian border when the attack happened.

Several other people were injured, some critically, Pakistani media reported.

No group has admitted carrying out the attack but police say they believe the motive was sectarian.

Sunni and Shia extremists have frequently clashed and launched attacks on each other over the past 20 years.

Deadliest attack

Bus driver Khushal Khan said his vehicle was stopped by eight to 10 men driving in two jeeps that came from the opposite direction.

Mr Khan said the men ordered everybody out of the bus and made them stand in a line before spraying them with AK-47 rifle bursts. Women and children were among the 45 passengers.

He said some managed to run away but others were shot. Six passengers who were injured were taken away for treatment.

Police said the bus had come from the provincial capital Quetta and was heading for the border town of Taftan.

It was the deadliest attack against Shias in Pakistan since a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people at a Shia rally in Quetta in September 2010.

Shia Muslims are a minority in Pakistan.

At least 13 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck in the car park of a Shia mosque in Quetta - capital of Balochistan province - during the Eid festival at the end of last month.

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that responsibility for most attacks has been claimed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) sectarian outfit, a predominantly Punjabi group with links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Police in Balochistan have over the years arrested a number of LJ activists in connection with these attacks. Some of them have been sentenced to death or imprisonment by the courts.

Our correspondent says both police and the Shia community believe the mastermind behind most of the recent attacks was an LJ commander, Osman Saifullah, who was arrested in 2006 but escaped from a maximum security anti-terrorism prison in the cantonment area of Quetta in 2008.

Buses leave Quetta every day to carry pilgrims to the Shia holy sites in western Iran and parts of southern Iraq.

They have been a target for many attacks by sectarian militants in recent years.

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