Gunmen disguised as members of the Pakistani security forces killed at least 22 passengers on Friday night after forcing them off buses travelling from the western city of Quetta to Karachi on the southern coast, officials said.
The assault in the province of Balochistan occurred in the town of Mastung, around 40 km south of Quetta.
“Fifteen to 20 armed men in three pickup trucks and wearing security uniforms kidnapped around 35 passengers,” Sarfaraz Bugti, Balochistan’s home minister, said. He said the bodies of 22 passengers were later found around two km away from the main Quetta-Karachi highway in foothills.
Seven of the assailants have been killed in an operation involving hundreds of soldiers and police, he added.
The circumstances of the passengers’ deaths could not immediately be established and the motives of the assailants were unclear. The attack will be a concern for the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif because it raises further questions about the feasibility of a new economic corridor Pakistan wants to build with billions of dollars of Chinese investment.
The much-vaunted project, announced when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan in April, envisages an eastern and western route, with the latter passing from Gwadar port in the south through Quetta and beyond.
Separatists have been waging an insurgency in Baluchistan, of which Quetta is the capital, for more than a decade. They are demanding an end to what they see as the exploitation of their resources by people from other parts of Pakistan.
“The kidnappers and terrorists are surrounded by security forces,” Bugti said.
In Quetta, where the bodies of the slain passengers were taken, hundreds of people gathered outside the governor’s house and staged a protest over the lack of security in Balochistan.