Naseer Ahmed / Reuters
Paramedics inspect the bodies of Shiite pilgrims killed by a car bomb in Quetta on Sunday.
QUETTA, Pakistan — Pakistani militants, who have escalated attacks in recent weeks, killed at least 40 people in two separate incidents, officials said on Sunday, challenging assertions that military offensives have broken the back of hardline Islamist groups.
A car bomb exploded near a convoy of buses taking Shiite pilgrims to Iran, killing at least 19 people and wounding 30, officials told NBC News, the latest attack on the minority sect.
Earlier Sunday, 21 tribal policemen believed to have been kidnapped by the Taliban were found shot dead in Pakistan's troubled northwest tribal region, government officials said.
Witnesses said the blast occurred as the three buses were overtaking a car about 35 miles west of Quetta, capital of sparsely populated Baluchistan province, site of many sectarian attacks, near the Iranian border.
Pakistan has experienced a spike in killings over the last year by radical Sunni Muslims targeting Shiites who they consider heretics. The violence has been especially pronounced in Baluchistan province, where the latest attack occurred.
"The bus next to us caught on fire immediately," pilgrim Hussein Ali, 60, told Reuters. "We tried to save our companions but were driven back by the intensity of the heat."
A second eyewitness said the bomber rushed by in a pick-up truck, swerved in front of the first bus and slammed on the brakes. The bus slammed into the pick-up truck and then a big explosion occurred.
Akbar Durrani, Baluchistan's home secretary, told Reuters that rescue teams were trying to reach victims in the wreckage of the vehicles, one of which was still in flames some time after the attack. He said the death toll could rise.
Fayaz Aziz / Reuters
A badly injured paramilitary soldier, who survived the shooting by Taliban militants, receives treatment at a hospital in Peshawar on Sunday.
At least 19 were killed in the attacks, and 30 wounded, according to government officials.
A string of attacks on Shiites underscores the government's inability to crack down on groups promoting sectarian violence.
Shiites make up around 15 percent of Pakistan's 190 million people. They are scattered around the country, but the province of Baluchistan has the largest community, mainly made up of ethnic Hazaras, easily identified by their facial features which resemble those of Central Asians.
Sunni extremists have long carried out attacks against Shiites in Pakistan. But the sectarian campaign has stepped up in recent years, fueled mainly by the radical group Laskar-e-Jangvhi, aligned to Pakistani Taliban militants headquartered in the tribal region. More than 300 Shiites have been killed in Pakistan this year, according to Human Rights Watch.
The violence has pushed Baluchistan in particular deeper into chaos. The province was already facing an armed insurgency by ethnic Baluch separatists who frequently attack security forces and government facilities. But the secessionist violence has been overtaken by increasingly bold attacks against Shiites.
The sectarian bloodletting adds another layer to the turmoil in Pakistan, where the government is fighting an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban and where many fear Sunni hardliners are gaining strength. Shiites and rights group say the government does little to protect Shiites and that militants are emboldened because they are believed to have links to Pakistan's intelligence agencies.
Tribal policemen killed
The 21 tribal policemen who were shot dead were found by officials shortly after midnight Sunday in the Jabai area of Frontier Region Peshawar after being notified by one policeman who escaped, said Naveed Akbar Khan, a top political official in the area. Another policeman was found seriously wounded, said Khan.
The 23 policemen went missing before dawn Thursday when militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons attacked two posts in Frontier Region Peshawar. Two policemen were also killed in the attacks.
After receiving threatening telephone calls warning they would regret helping the "infidel" campaign against polio, a group of woman, working on a UN-backed polio vaccination campaign, were shot and killed by gunmen a day after a similar slaying in Karachi. Ch4 Europe's Lindsey Hilsum reports. Warning: Some images maybe disturbing.
Militants lined the policemen up on a cricket pitch late Saturday night and gunned them down, said another local official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Also Sunday, two Pakistani army soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with official policy.
NBC News' Mushtaq Yusufzai, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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