About 20 men dressed as Pakistani soldiers boarded a bus bound for a Muslim festival outside this mountain town and checked the identification cards of the passengers. They singled out 19 Shi’ites, drew weapons and slaughtered them, most with a bullet to the head.
The shooters weren’t soldiers. They were a hit squad linked to the Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or LeJ. They had trekked in along a high Himalayan pass that hot August morning to waylay a convoy of pilgrims.
Here and across Pakistan, violent Sunni radicals are on the march against the nation’s Shi’ite minority.
With a few hundred hard-core cadres, the highly secretive LeJ aims to trigger sectarian violence that would pave the way for a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan, say Pakistan police and intelligence officials. Its immediate goal, they say, is to stoke the intense Sunni-Shi’ite violence that has pushed countries like Iraq close to civil war.
More than 300 Shi’ites have been killed in Pakistan so far this year in sectarian conflict, according to human rights groups. The campaign is gathering pace in rural as well as urban areas such as Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. The Shi’ites are a big target, accounting for up to 20 percent of this nation of 180 million.
In January, LeJ claimed responsibility for a homemade bomb that exploded in a crowd of Shi’ites in Punjab province, killing 18 and wounding 30. LeJ’s reach extends beyond Pakistan: Late last year, LeJ claimed responsibility for bombings in Afghanistan that killed 59 people, the worst sectarian attacks since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.
“No doubt – (LeJ) are the most dangerous group,” said Chaudhry Aslam, a top counter-terrorism police commando based in Karachi, whose house was blown up by the LeJ. “We will fight them until the last drop of blood.”