QUETTA // Suspected Sunni extremists executed 12 Shiites after ordering them off a bus and lining them up yesterday in south-western Pakistan, ramping up a campaign of sectarian violence that has exposed Islamabad's inability to protect minorities.
Sunni militants with links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban have carried out scores of bombings and shootings across the country against minority Shiites in recent years, but this summer has been especially bloody in Baluchistan province, with at least four major attacks since May.
The gunmen who attacked yesterday were riding on motorbikes and stopped a bus carrying mostly Shiites who were headed to work at a vegetable market on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, said the police official Hamid Shakeel.
The attackers forced the people off the bus, made them stand in a line and then opened fire, said Mr Shakeel.
The dead included 12 Shiites and one Sunni, he said. Seven people were wounded, five Shiites and two Sunnis.
Shiites blocked the main motorway on the outskirts of Quetta to protest against the killings. They also set fire to the bus that had taken the dead and wounded to the hospital.
Sunni extremists carried out a similar attack on Shiite pilgrims travelling through Baluchistan on a bus about two weeks ago, killing 26 people.
Both incidents targeted the Hazaras, a Shiite tribe that lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where tribe members have also been attacked by Sunni militants. Security forces in the Baluchistan region, who are also battling separatist rebels, have proved largely powerless to stop the violence.
Shiites make up roughly 15 per cent of Pakistan's population.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan became the scene of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with both sides funnelling money to sectarian groups that regularly targeted each other.
The level of sectarian violence has declined somewhat since then, but attacks continue. In recent years, Sunni attacks on Shiites have been far more common.
The groups have been energised by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which are also Sunni and share the belief that Shiites are infidels and it is permissible to kill them. The Sunni-Shiite schism over the true heir to Prophet Muhammed dates back to the seventh century.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of the country's most ruthless Sunni militant groups, claimed responsibility for the attack in Baluchistan two weeks ago. One of its alleged leaders, Malik Ishaq, was released from prison on bail in July after being held for 14 years on charges, never proven, of killing Shiites.
Mr Ishaq was rearrested about a week ago after making inflammatory speeches against Shiites in the country. He was not charged but detained under a public order act, which means he can be held for three months.