Armed gunmen dressed in army uniforms target killed 18 Shias from Gilgit-Baltistan on the Karakoram Highway in the Kohistan area of Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa province while they were returning in a convoy from a pilgrimage in Iran.

According to the police, the gunmen flagged down four buses, boarded them and asked the passengers whether they were Shia or Sunni. The assailants then asked the Shias to step out of the buses and checked their identity cards before pumping bullets into them. All those killed were men while the injured included women and children.

The buses were travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit-Baltistan through the mountainous Harban Nullah area of Kohistan which is dominated by two Sunni tribes. Located at the crossroads of central, south and southwestern Asia, Kohistan falls on the historic Silk Route.

Area police described the massacre as a case of sectarian violence and said it was possible that this was to avenge the recent murder of two Sunni Muslims in Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as Northern Areas). As news of the massacre reached Gilgit and Skardu — the main town of Baltistan —people took to the streets in protest and Section 144 was invoked.

Fearing violence when the bodies are brought back, Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Syed Mehdi Shah ordered closure of all schools for the next three days.

Jundallah is reported to have claimed responsibility for the attack. Sectarian violence has been on the rise in Pakistan and last year saw a number of instances of Shias being target killed — particularly Hazara Shias in Balochistan — and their imambaras attacked.

Earlier this month, the Shia community of Parachinar along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was targeted by a bomb attack in which nearly 40 people were killed.

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