Pakistan’s Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered an immediate and targeted security operation in the southwestern city of Quetta after a weekend bombing killed 84 members of the Shiite Muslim minority.
The offensive will be “aimed at eliminating those responsible for playing with lives of innocent civilians and restoring peace and security in Quetta,” Shafqat Jalil, Ashraf’s press secretary, said in a statement in Islamabad. Jalil didn’t say whether the operation would be led by paramilitary police or the army.
Thousands of Shiites, including women and children, spent the night in near freezing temperatures by the corpses of those killed on Feb. 16, as anger over the sectarian attacks triggered protests in other cities across Pakistan.
Shiite leaders asked relatives sitting alongside coffins at the site of the blast in the capital of Baluchistan province to end their protest and bury the dead after successful negotiations with a government team in Quetta today.
The relatives refused to carry out burials until the army was deployed to stem the carnage against the ethnic Hazara community, which straddles the Pakistan-Afghan border. A bombing in the city killed at least 96 people a month ago and forced the dismissal of the provincial administration.
“The protest is continuing until the demand of the relatives is met,” Muhammad Amin Shaheedi, deputy secretary general of the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan, a Shiite umbrella group, said on the phone from Quetta. “We support their demand and will stand with them until they are comfortable to leave.”
Shaheedi had earlier appealed to the protesters to call off the strike. Protests continued today after an agreement was reached between the representatives of the affected families and the government, with people in the eastern city of Lahore occupying a portion of the airport, causing disturbance to passengers, Geo television reported.
Shiites make up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s population of 200 million people and are considered heretics by extreme groups among the Sunni majority due to differences in religious doctrine dating back to near the beginnings of Islam.
Security forces killed four “wanted persons” and arrested 170 suspects in connection with the latest bombing in raids that began overnight, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who led the government team, told reporters. He gave no details.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or the Army of Jhang, a Sunni militant group named after a city in Punjab province, is among those to have claimed previous assaults on Shiites. While Lashkar’s violence is driven by the historic schism that ruptured Islam centuries ago, the Hazaras’ opposition to Sunni-led Taliban movements in the region may help single them out as a target, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst.
A separatist insurgency in Baluchistan means law and order is weak, making it “relatively easy for extremist groups such as LeJ to function there,” Rizvi said.
Political and religious parties held protests in major cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and the capital Islamabad. In Karachi, the commercial capital, sit-ins blocked two main highways, trains and flights were disrupted and markets closed in support of the protests. The area around Bilawal House, President Asif Ali Zardari’s personal home, has been fortified with shipping containers as has the official residence of the chief minister of Sindh province, whose biggest city is Karachi.
The U.S. State Department in 2003 listed LeJ as a terrorist group, saying it had links to al-Qaeda and was involved with the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
At least 225 people were injured in the Feb. 16 bombing in which police said 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) to 1,000 kilograms of explosives were used to target a congested commercial neighborhood. Among the dead were 17 children and two teachers who were at school near the explosion, the ARY channel said. As many as 22 women were killed, the Geo television channel said.
At least 400 Shiites died from violence in 2012 in Pakistan, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. More than 120 were killed in Baluchistan, most of them Hazara. Baluchistan, a region rich in natural resources including gas assets, is also roiled by a separatist insurgency.