QUETTA, Pakistan—Separatists in the southwestern province of Balochistan blame government security forces for an August 28 attack in the Awaran district that left six dead and seven injured.
Witnesses say armed men on motorbikes attacked a Zikri house of worship and began shooting indiscriminately, then left in the direction of a military camp.
The Zikris are a Muslim religious sect, most of whom are ethnic Baluch, and Baluch nationalists groups have been fighting Pakistani forces in the province for more than a decade. This insurgency in the vast, resource-rich region has resulted in the killing of thousands of soldiers, militants, and civilians since 2004.
Gluam Nabi Marri, a leader of the avowedly secular Balochistan National Party Mengal, said the attack on the Zirkris is part of Islamabad's efforts to discredit the separatists.
"It is aimed at portraying the Baluch separatists as engaging in sectarian warfare and to show that they are intolerant bigots," Marri said.
Pakistan's estimated eight million Baluchs are divided among various tribes. While most are Sunni Muslims, hundreds of thousands of Baluch adhere to the Zikri sect of Islam.
Banarhai Baloch, a nationalist activist, also believes Pakistani security forces and intelligence agencies were behind the attack.
"Local people claim that they saw the militants riding their motorbikes into a paramilitary forces camp after the attack on Zirki worshippers," she told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "This obviously leads us to conclude that the intelligence agencies and the security forces are behind this attack. We have no doubts."
A little-known Islamist faction calling itself "Lashkar-e Khurasan" has claimed responsibility for the August 28 attack, as well as for an attack on Awaran’s Zikri community in July. The faction has recently been issuing public warnings to Zikris to abandon their faith and embrace Sunni Islam or prepare to be killed.
Some in Balochistan, however, believe the sudden arrival of this previously un-known group is more smoke and mirrors from the security forces.
"The biggest headache in Balochistan right now is this secessionist movement, and this is another tactic to counter it," said rights activists Faiz Muhammad Baloch.
Balochistan’s Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti, however, rejects claims that security forces and intelligence agencies were responsible for the attack.
"It has become fashionable in Balochistan to blame the government and security forces for any incident," he told Radio Mashaal. "I want to reiterate that the state cannot be so irresponsible as to back a faction engaging in such atrocities. For the state, all the Zikris, Hindus, and Muslims are equal citizens of Pakistan."
Senior security official Akbar Hussain Durrani says that the government will not allow anyone to force others to abandon their faith.
"We will acts against this militant group. Everyone is free to practice their faith," he said.
Balochistan makes up nearly half of Pakistan's territory, but is home to only five percent of Pakistan's 180 inhabitants. The province was once known for religious harmony and as a bastion of secular politics, but during the past decade, religious minorities have been targeted by Sunni extremists.
Along with the Zikris, the region’s tiny Hazara Shi’ite minority community has come under attack, Hindu traders and their children have been kidnapped for ransom, and more than 1,000 Hazaras have been killed.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story in Prague based on Barakwal Miakhel and Khudai Noor Nasar's reporting from Quetta, Pakistan.