ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Tensions were running high on Saturday in southwestern Pakistan after dozens of heavily armed gunmen, wearing the uniforms of security forces, stopped two buses, singled out ethnic Pashtuns and fatally shot at least 22 of them on Friday night.
Hundreds of protesters are holding a sit-in outside the Governor’s House in Quetta, the provincial capital of restive Baluchistan Province, as they demand punishment for the killers. Most roads in the city were deserted, and businesses were closed to protest the killings.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but similar attacks have been carried out by Baluch separatists, who since the mid-2000s have waged a low-level insurgency in the oil- and mineral-rich province. The insurgency is an outgrowth of past calls for greater autonomy and a greater share of the natural resources there.
The attack took place in Mastung, about 40 miles southeast of Quetta. The buses had been on their way to Karachi, the southern port city in neighboring Sindh Province.
One of the two buses was carrying passengers from Chaman, a Pakistani town on the border with Afghanistan.
Many traders from the town visit Karachi daily for business. Haji Saad Zai and his son Muhammad Naeem, were among those killed in the attack, their relatives said. A family member, Hashmat Ali, said that passengers had urgently called their loved ones, asking them to contact paramilitary forces so they could reach the site. “Despite it, paramilitary forces reached too late,” Mr. Ali said.
Ashraf Jan, who runs a Karachi-Quetta bus service, said that such attacks would heighten the sense of insecurity among the travelers.
“Already, the ethnic Hazara community prefers to travel to Karachi by air because of continuous attacks on them on the roads,” Mr. Jan said, referring to a minority group.
Before Friday’s shootings of the Pashtuns, militants from banned sectarian groups used to target buses of Shiite pilgrims, mostly in Mastung District, forcing them to also give up road travel in the province.
While attacks on Pashtuns in Baluchistan have occurred in the past, killing them after stopping buses and checking identity cards for their ethnicity is a new development.
A Pashtun lawmaker from the province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said that the attack was aimed at disrupting a planned economic corridor through the province that would offer China easier sea access. The $46 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects, pledged last month by China, center on a network of rail and road and pipeline projects.
The lawmaker said that on Thursday, during a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, representatives of all political parties had reached a consensus about the project as the government tries to calm suspicions that some regions will be left out of the project and Punjab Province, the political base of Mr. Sharif, would be the only beneficiary of the increased economic activity with China.
On Saturday, Mr. Sharif spoke to Dr. Abdul Malik, the chief minister of Baluchistan, and directed him to raise security and arrest the attackers.
Security officials say a search is being carried out by 200 troops across Mastung District.
Speaking during a news conference in Quetta on Saturday, Maulana Abdul Wasay, a lawmaker, said that the attack was “conspiracy against Pakistan.”
“Our enemy country is trying to spread anarchy in the province,” he said in a veiled reference to India.
Later, Mr. Sharif said he was concerned about the involvement of “foreign intelligence agencies” in destabilizing Pakistan.
Pakistani officials accuse India of supporting terrorism inside the country, and in recent months, the country’s top civil and military leaderships have accused India of backing separatists in Baluchistan. India has denied involvement.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi.
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(via NY Times)