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MANSEHRA: Gunmen in military uniform forced people going from Rawalpindi to Gilgit to disembark from buses in Kohistan’s Harban area on Tuesday and gunned down 16 of them after checking their names on their ID cards which invoked protests all over the country.

“Sixteen people were killed in the incident. The bodies were handed over to the deputy commissioner of Chilas after autopsy at Shitial hospital,” Mohammad Ilyas, district police officer, Kohistan, told reporters.

According to foreign news agencies, this was a sectarian attack as confirmed by a man claiming to be spokesman for the Jandullah faction of Taliban. He said the 16 were killed by ‘Mujahideen’ because they were Shias.

A large number of people came out on roads in protest against the killings. They burned tyres at different chowks. Shops and markets were closed. The district administration imposed Section 144 in Gilgit city and announced closure of offices and schools for three days.

According to officials, the attackers intercepted four buses on the Karakoram Highway, asked the passengers to get off, shot 16 people dead after checking their ID cards and escaped.

DPO Mohammad Ilyas said 117 passengers were on the buses. Police took the bodies to the hospital.

Harban is about four kilometres from Tangier and Darail areas where security forces have been attacked for several times in recent past.

MPA Abdul Sattar Khan, who belongs to Dasso tehsil, said the carnage was apparently related to recent sectarian clashes in Gilgit.

Senior officials of the Kohistan district administration were tight lipped about the nature of the killings.

“We have registered an FIR and started investigation and everything will be clear after completion of preliminary investigation,” Mr Ilyas said.

Farman Ali Baltistani adds from Skardu: Seven victims were from Baltistan division, four from Nagar, two from Astore and one from Gilgit. The bodies of the other two could not be identified.

Meanwhile, two people were injured in incidents of firing in Sakwar village. They were identified as Zulfiqar and Abdul Mannan, residents of Gilgit.

Gilgit-Baltistan Governor Pir Karam Ali Shah and Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah condemned the Harban killings. They said the culprits would soon be arrested.

Our correspondent adds from Shangla: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti called Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah and condemned the incident.

He termed it a cowardly and brutal act and said the elements involved would be brought to book whether they belonged to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Gilgit-Baltistan.

AP adds: According to lawmaker Abdul Sattar the victims were Shias. He said eight gunmen were involved in the ambush, and all were wearing military uniforms, presumably to make it easier to stop the buses.

Officials initially said 18 people had been killed and that just one bus was involved.

Mr Sattar and Sher Khan, an official at the Rawalpindi bus station, said attacks had been feared on travellers after an incident last month in which an unknown number of Sunnis were killed in the Gilgit region. Sher Khan said buses were travelling in convoy as a security measure.

Aamir Yasin adds from Rawalpindi: Private transporters running buses from Rawalpindi to Gilgit-Baltistan suspended operation after the incident.

More than 50 buses for Gilgit and Skardu run on the route. Due to insecurity, people mostly use air route to go to Gilgit.

The transporters said they would not resume the bus service unless the government took adequate security measures and ensure safety of passengers. “The government should take serious steps to stop such attacks,” said Nisar Ali, the owner of Mashabroom Tour Operators.

He said that most of the passengers on the buses were pilgrims returning from Iran and some army officers and personnel.

“Luckily, 47 pilgrims remained safe because their bus had departed one hour late,” he said.