Pakistani authorities said gunmen attacked a bus in Karachi Wednesday, killing at least 45 people, including 16 women, all of whom belonged to the minority Shi'ite Ismaili Muslim community.
Provincial police chief Inspector General Ghulam Haider Jamail said six men riding motorbikes ambushed and entered the bus and sprayed the passengers with bullets. The bus was transporting members of the minority community to their workplaces when it was ambushed.
Witnesses told police the passengers thought the gunmen wanted to rob them so they immediately offered their belongings, including mobile phones and money, begging for their lives. But the assailants ordered them to put their heads down and opened fire with automatic weapons.
The attackers spared two children aboard the bus and its driver, telling him to transport the bus to the hospital, witnesses said.
The head of the crime investigation team said evidence collected from the scene suggests weapons including "SMGs and 9mm" pistols were used in the attack.
Bus attacked in secluded area
Television footage showed the bus was on an unpaved road, with buildings under construction on both sides. It is a relatively secluded area of the city.
The attackers apparently fled the scene. Authorities cordoned off the area and transported the wounded to hospitals.
Local media said police have recovered pamphlets of a little known militant group called Khurasan, claiming responsibility for the attack and identifying itself as part of Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Authorities have yet to comment on the reports and the Pakistani government has previously rejected reports of the presence of Islamic State militants in the country. Such pamphlets have been previously recovered from other scenes of terrorist attacks, but officials insist they are meant only to cause distraction.
Meanwhile, Pakistan military chief General Raheel Sharif canceled his scheduled trip to Sri Lanka because of the Karachi bus attack.
Sharif condemns attack
In Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was chairing a so-called All Parties' conference when he was informed of the attack. He denounced the bloodshed, saying it is a “worrying development that the terrorists are now targeting Pakistan’s peaceful and innocent communities that have stayed away from controversies.”
The Ismaili community in Pakistan is considered progressive and largely non-political, working mostly in the health and education sectors.
The southern commercial hub Karachi has long been the site of ethnic, religious and political violence. The government recently launched a security operation in the city of nearly 20 million people using a paramilitary force called the Rangers.
Authorities have rounded up hundreds of suspected criminals, killers and kidnappers. A majority of the detainees belong to Karachi’s dominant political force, Mutahida Qaumi Movement or MQM.
The party, representing the city’s majority Urdu-speaking population, alleges the security operation is politically motivated.
In March, the paramilitary force raided MQM’s headquarters and captured “sophisticated heavy and other weapons” together with “fugitives of law, including murder convicts.”
Islamist militants linked to the Pakistani Taliban are also believed to be operating in Karachi and blamed for some of the deadly attacks both on civilians and police personnel. The insurgents, entrenched tribal areas near the Afghan border, are blamed for killing thousands of Pakistanis in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in response to security operations against their strongholds.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Twitter post has said the attack in Karachi is "deeply saddening" and "utterly condemnable."
"Our thoughts are with the families of the deceased. We stand firmly with the people of Pakistan in this hour of grief. I wish all those injured a quick recovery," Modi said.
In an unusual statement earlier this month, the Pakistan military accused the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, of "whipping up terrorism in Pakistan."