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A man is comforted by his relative after he arrived at the local hospital in Quetta to find a family member shot dead, September 20, 2011. — Photo by Reuters/File

PESHAWAR: Gunmen dragged 20 Shia Muslim travelers off a bus and killed them at point blank range in northern Pakistan on Thursday, the third such incident in six months, officials said.

The attack happened in the northwestern district of Mansehra as the bus was travelling between Rawalpindi and the mainly Shia northern city of Gilgit.

Officials said it was ambushed in the hills of Babusar Top, around 100 miles north of the capital Islamabad, although they differed over details of the incident.

“Ten to 12 people wearing army uniform stopped the bus and forced some people off the bus,” said Khalid Omarzai, administration chief in Mansehra.

“After checking their papers, they opened fire and at least 20 people are reported to have been killed. This is initial information and the final toll may go up. They are all Shias,” he said.

Local police official Shafiq Gul told AFP that the gunmen were masked, but said the victims were pulled from three separate vehicles in the district, which neighbours the Swat valley, a former Taliban stronghold.

“They stopped three vehicles, searched them and picked up people in three batches of five, six and nine and shot them dead. They were all Shias,” he said.

Mansehra police chief Sher Akbar Khan put the toll at 19, saying the attackers had worn military commando uniforms when they opened fire at around 6.00 am.

“They intercepted three buses, took people out and checked their ID cards and later sprayed bullets at them,” Khan said.

Sectarian violence linked to Gilgit, a popular tourist destination for wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates who live in the country, has increased in recent months.

It is the capital of Pakistan’s far northern Gilgit-Baltistan region and is popular with mountaineers as a gateway to the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges.

Angry mobs burnt tyres and blocked roads in some parts of the city to protest against the killings as extra police patrolled deserted streets and markets closed, said an AFP reporter in Gilgit.

The chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Syed Mehdi Shah, called an emergency meeting of top officials and ordered them to step up security and demanded the immediate arrest of the killers, a spokesman said.

The road from Babusar to Gilgit has been closed indefinitely, the local government added.

On February 28, gunmen hauled 18 Shia Muslim men off buses travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit in the northern district of Kohistan, shooting them dead.

On April 3, a mob dragged nine Shia Muslims from buses and also shot them dead in the town of Chilas, about 60 miles south of Gilgit.

Human rights groups have heavily criticised Pakistan for failing to crack down on sectarian violence.

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