ISLAMABAD — 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. The announcement came as thousands of Shiites, including women and children, spent the night surrounding the corpses of those killed Feb. 16 and as anger over the sectarian attacks sparked protests in other cities nationwide.
Relatives sat alongside coffins at the site of the blast in the capital of Baluchistan province as temperatures hovered around freezing point, refusing to bury victims of the latest massacre of Shiites until the army is deployed to stem the carnage.
A bombing in the city killed at least 96 people a month ago and forced the dismissal of the provincial administration.
“We will continue our protest till our demand for an army takeover is met,” Muhammad Amin Shaheedi, deputy secretary general of the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Pakistan, said from Quetta before the prime minister made his statement. “It’s been three days of waiting with our dead.”
Shiites make up about 15 percent of the nation’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.
A parliamentary delegation was set to meet Shiite leaders in Quetta, who say paramilitary police deployed in sensitive neighborhoods have failed to prevent attacks on the ethnic Hazara community, which straddles the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or the Army of Jhang, a Sunni militant group named after a city in Punjab province, has among others 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, Rizvi said, making it “relatively easy for extremist groups such as LeJ to function there.”
Political and religious parties held protests in major cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and the capital Islamabad. In the commercial capital of Karachi, 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.
The U.S. State Department in 2003 listed LeJ as a terrorist group, saying it had links to al-Qaida 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 800-1,000 kg 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.
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