Pakistani development experts and activists say the massacre of Shiite Muslims in Gilgit-Baltistan and other northern parts of Pakistan is linked to ongoing development programs in the area and regional politics.
Last week, several gunmen, who were in the guise of Pakistani security officials, stopped a passenger bus travelling from Rawalpindi to the northwestern Gilgit region and dragged the travelers off the bus. The gunmen asked the passengers to show their identity cards, after which they brutally killed 22 of them at point blank range, making sure that they belonged to the minority Shiite community. The Taliban, a Sunni-Wahabi militant organization, claimed responsibility of the attack.
It was the third such incident in six months. Pakistani experts say that although Shiite Muslims are also murdered in other parts of Pakistan, the Shiites living in the northwestern Gilgit-Baltistan region, a predominantly Shiite area, face a systematic onslaught by the Taliban. Some experts go to an extent of calling it "sectarian cleansing" of the Shiites.
Unlike Wahabi groups who are close to Saudi Arabia, Pakistani Shia groups are allied with Iran
In a similar incident on February 28, gunmen in military fatigues shot dead 18 Shiite Muslims in the northern Kohistan district while they were travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit. On April 3, a Sunni mob pulled nine Shiites out of buses and murdered them in the town of Chilas, about 60 miles south of Gilgit.
Pakistani human rights groups accuse the country's security agencies of backing Sunni militants and failing to protect the minority groups of the country.
"The killings are doubtless the work of those who want to destroy Pakistan, but a failure to nab and punish the killers is also contributing to the same end ... the Taliban (are) nobody's friends and those who created this monster have taken Pakistan down the road to annihilation," said Pakistan's non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement, directly holding the Taliban and state agencies responsible for the massacre.
Control over Gilgit-Baltistan
Gilgit-Baltistan used to be a popular tourist destination but now not many people travel to these areas because of the unrest. Gilgit-Baltistan lies about 10 kilometers off the Karakoram Highway, which connects it to the Pakistani capital Islamabad in the south and to the Chinese cities of Tashkurgan, Upal and Kashgar in the northern Xinjiang province. To the west of Gilgit-Baltistan lies Afghanistan and on its southwest is Pakistani Administered Kashmir.
Gilgit-Baltistan is known for its breath-taking scenic beauty and glaciers
Pakistani experts say the sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan, which was given the status of an administrative province by President Zardari in 2009, is also linked to regional politics and to ongoing and future development projects in the area.
Maqsood Ahmad Jan, a development expert in Islamabad, told DW that the violence in Gilgit-Baltistan region increased considerably after the Pakistan People's Party's government elevated the status of the once-reclusive and semi-governed region.
"Currently, I am working with the Plan International organization and we are working to implement some projects in Gilgit, but the continued violence has impeded the pace of our projects. Other development organizations working in this area also complain about the same," Jan said.
Many development experts are of the view that militant Sunni groups are not in favor of a prosperous and autonomous Shiite-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan region so close to Afghanistan, China and Kashmir. Defense experts say that peace in Gilgit-Baltistan would also be a setback for hard-line Kashmiri militant groups, which claim that Gilgit-Baltistan is part of Kashmir. Gilgit-Baltistan Shiites have always opposed any move to annex their region with Pakistan Administered Kashmir because they fear it would turn them into a minority.
The Taliban, say experts, see the majority Shiite Gilgit-Baltistan as a threat to their Wahabi political agenda and their influence in the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which borders Afghanistan.
But there are others who say that the Shiite massacre in Gilgit-Baltistan was actually a war of interests between regional players.
"It is somehow linked to the 'war on terror' and US policies in the region, especially its policy towards Iran," Sartaj Khan, an editor in Karachi, told DW. "I think the US and Pakistani agencies, with the backing of Saudi Arabia, are arming militant Sunni groups to suppress the Shiites in the region to kill any possible support for Iran."
Khan added that the Pakistani agencies had given a "free hand" to militant organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a Sunni organization believed to be responsible for various attacks on Pakistani Shiites in the past, to operate in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Karachi-based Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi also blamed US policies in the region for the instability in Pakistan's northern areas and the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis.
"The US intends to demoralize us, make us feel hopeless and helpless, so that it can continue to play its politics in the region. Its main motive is to counter China and Iran." Zaidi told DW, adding that he believed extremists Sunni groups like the Taliban were working for the US' interests in the region.
On his part, Hameed Satti, a development consultant in Islamabad, told DW that Pakistanis had a habit of blaming foreign countries for their problems, and that it was not surprising for him that the massacre of the Shiites, which he believed was a result of state policies, was blamed on the US.