ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's northern tourist towns have been grappling with a fresh flare-up of deadly sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis, adding to the woes of the south Asian Muslim country.
The situation is still terribly tense here, although the army troops have managed to quench the raging violence, Saadat Ali, a journalist in Gilgit in northern Pakistan, told OnIslam.net.
Most of the inhabitants of Gilgit have been indoors for last three days, which is the best option to save their lives and properties.
Violence flared up between Shiites and Sunnis in Gilgit, which touches the Chinese province of Xinjiang, over the past few days, leaving more than 30 people dead.
The flare-up began on Tuesday, April 3, when unknown assailants threw a hand grenade on Sunni protestors demanding the release of a leader, who had been detained in connection with the killing of 22 Shiites in neighboring Kohistan district last month.
The attack left at least six people dead and scores injured, triggering free-for-all clashes in and around the city.
Armed Shiites and Sunnis attacked each other with sophisticated weapons, killing 22 people in one day.
The violence also spread to neighboring districts of Diamir, Ghazar, Skurdu and Kohistan where angry protestors took to the streets, blocking the historical Karakoram highway.
Hundreds of armed Shiites also took to the streets in Baltistan to protest the killings.
The government sent army troops to quell the violence, clamping curfew in Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region, for an indefinite period that helped control the violence.
Cellular services were also suspended to help control the situation.
But the curfew and suspension of cellular services have created shortage of food, water, medicines in the area.
There is an acute shortage of food, medicines, and other merchandise in the city (Gilgit) and its outskirts as people were not allowed to come out of their houses for three consecutive days, Muddassir Shah, a school teacher from Nagar town of Gilgit, told OnIslam.net.
The army on Friday relaxed the curfew for merely three hours, prompting residents to rush to markets o buy food and other essential commodities for next few days.
Long queues were seen in the markets with panicked citizens pushing and pulling each other in a bid to get food and other essential stuff as soon as possible and rush back to their homes before the relaxation hours are over.
There is a ban on gathering of more than two persons even during the relaxation period.
People are also not allowed to wear jackets and Chadars (a sheet to wrap around) in an effort to prevent attackers to hide weapons.
Pakistan, home of 180 million people, is a Sunni majority country with 85 percent Sunnis.
Shiites make up 10 percent of the total population.
Residents say that Sunnis and Shiites mostly live in peace in the region, despite occasional violence.
There is no hatred or animosity among general people against each other, Muddasir Shah, the school teacher, told OnIslam.net.
Most of the times, the clashes are politically-motivated, and sponsored.
Gilgit-Baltistan, which has recently been granted the right to have its own legislative assembly and the elected chief minister, is a disputed region between Pakistan and India.
Gilgit is the largest city and capital of the region, the hub of Sunni, Shiite, and Ismaili communities.
The two main cities of the region, Skurdu and Baltistan, are heavily dominated by Shiites, while the adjoining districts, Diamir, Ghazar, and Kohistan, are dominated by Sunnis.
The scenic valley of Hunza is the hub of Ismaili community.
The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) emerged the single majority party in the region in the 2010 general election, followed by Jamiat Ulema Islam, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Muslim League(Q).
Most of the elected PPP legislators, including Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah, are Shiites.
Gilgit-Baltistan has had a long history of sectarian violence.
Many stalwarts of outlawed organizations belonging to Sunnis and Shiites hail from the region.
Shah points out that the majority of the population in the region stays away from sectarian violence.
You never see when common Shiite or Sunnis fight each other in the streets. They are the workers of outlawed organizations who fueled the sectarian violence, he said.
I can quote here various examples when citizens belonging to one sect has helped and rescued citizens pertaining of rival sect.
This is just because we have been living together for centuries, he said, referring to incidents where Sunni elders saved lives of Shiites in their dominated areas, while Shiite elders did the same in their dominated areas after last month's killings.
Seeking to quell the violence, Sunni and Shiite scholars have appealed for followers to show restraint.
Sectarian violence has never served and will never serve Islam, Mufti Abu Hurarira, a renowned Sunni religious scholar, said.
We must understand the conspiracy of anti-Islam forces. They want us to fight and argue each other on sectarian grounds.
The Muslim scholar believes that literary arguments should not be converted into armed wrangling.
Difference of opinion is the beauty of our religion. We should be tolerant enough to listen to others' arguments.
Allama Aun Naqvi, a Shiite religious scholar, agrees.
Those who are fanning the sectarian tension and violence in the country are the agents of America and Israel, Allama Naqvi opined.
We should be aware of these conspiracies, and get united to foil the nefarious designs of anti-Islam forces.