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Victims of Attack in Pakistan All Christian

Violence: Slaying of seven staff members at the headquarters of a peace group 'appears to be an act of terrorism,' police chief says.

September 26, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARACHI, Pakistan — Two gunmen who killed seven Christian workers here Wednesday morning tied up most of their victims and shot them in the head one by one, execution style.

The morning attack on the Institute for Peace and Justice, a Roman Catholic group trying to promote harmony between all religions, left another staff member critically wounded, police said.

The dead included the agency's communications outreach coordinator, a computer operator, an accountant, an office assistant and two drivers, all Pakistanis between the ages of 25 and 56. The seventh victim, who was not further identified, died later at a hospital.

The attackers escaped, leaving uninjured one worker--a man who served tea and did other menial jobs in the office. He was found with his mouth taped shut and in shock, and was hospitalized with heart problems.

Karachi, a bustling port city and Pakistan's commercial center, is also a key battleground in the war against terrorism.

With the help of FBI agents, Pakistani security forces have had several successes here in recent weeks. Those included the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh, alleged by U.S. authorities to be a planner of the Sept. 11 attacks. He is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.

There is no evidence that Wednesday's shootings were carried out in revenge for Binalshibh's arrest or any other counter-terrorism operations, said Inspector General Syed Kamal Shah, who heads the Sindh province police.

Although the assault "appears to be an act of terrorism," Shah said, he cautioned that investigators are still trying to determine the motive and whether an organization is behind the slayings.

"I'm not linking this incident with recent ones," Shah told reporters outside the Christian group's third-floor office. "What I'm saying is we will investigate with an open mind. We will look at all angles."

The agency's office manager opened the electronically locked door about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, and other staff members started arriving about 10, Shah said.

One of them apparently buzzed in the killers, who herded five of the victims into the office library. Hands bound, mouths taped shut and sitting in office chairs around a conference table, the staff members were shot one after another, Shah said.

Their bodies were found on the library floor. A sixth victim, who was not tied up, was slain sitting in a chair near the office bathroom.

Workers in neighboring offices, who peered nervously into the dark hallway full of police, said they didn't hear shots.

The slayings was discovered about 10:15 a.m. when two Muslim staff members of the Catholic-run agency rang the doorbell and the unharmed witness let them in.

"We are examining why the one was spared when he is also a Christian," Shah said.

The office publishes a monthly magazine called Jafakash, or The Worker, and police suggested that the organization may have been singled out because the publication has opposed Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws.

Human rights activists have long accused Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of undermining his own campaign against Islamic extremists by refusing to reform the laws, which have been used to have Christians, members of Muslim sects and other religious minorities sentenced to death for allegedly offending Islam.

Pakistan's government doesn't carry out the death penalties imposed in blasphemy cases, but the convicted prisoners often languish on death row for years while awaiting appeals. Several Pakistanis accused of blasphemy have been slain in prison or by mobs before they could stand trial.

Yousuf Mustikhan, general secretary of the National Workers Party, said he had worked closely with the Institute for Peace and Justice in a campaign against the sectarian violence that has ravaged Pakistan for years.

"Peace and justice have been murdered by terrorists in Pakistan," Mustikhan, a Muslim, said after six bodies shrouded in bloodstained white cloth were carried on stretchers down a dingy stairwell to waiting ambulances.

"The victims were very great people," he added. "They were struggling for the downtrodden people of Pakistan. Mostly Christians were working here, but they were not working as Christians. Muslims worked with them."

Staff members never mentioned any specific threats but knew they could be a tempting target for terrorists, said Usman Baloch, a Muslim member of the agency's board. But they didn't have security guards because they thought that would contradict their message, he added.

"If they were getting threats and they did not talk to anybody to keep this [religious] harmony intact, it was a great sacrifice," Mustikhan said.

The killings were the latest in a series of assaults on Christians in Pakistan that has seen at least three dozen people slain in the last year. But the attacks Wednesday were different because the killers used a single, small- caliber pistol and did not fire indiscriminately, said Shah, the police inspector general.

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