QUETTA: Thousands demonstrated in cities across Pakistan on Thursday against the killing of 24 Shiite Muslim pilgrims in a bomb attack, as their relatives refused to bury their bodies in a powerful gesture of protest.
The roadside blast on Tuesday hit a bus around 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, which has been the focus of growing sectarian violence in Pakistan.
Up to 2,000 people, most of them Shiites, demonstrated on Quetta's busy Alamdar Road with the bodies of the bombing victims, refusing to bury them until action is taken against militants.
There were also demonstrations in Karachi and the Punjab cities of Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi, against what protesters called the "genocide" of Pakistani Shiites.
Members of Quetta's Hazara ethnic community, which is largely Shiite, began their protest on Wednesday and braved freezing temperatures to spend the night in the open.
They say they will not bury the victims' bodies until a military operation wipes out militants and their sanctuaries from the outskirts of Quetta and nearby Mastung district, where Tuesday's attack happened.
"We will not bury our dead bodies until a clear assurance from the government that it will launch a crackdown against terrorists and their sanctuaries," Abdul Khaliq Hazara, head of the Hazara Democratic Party, told AFP.
Refusing to bury bodies is an extreme statement in Islamic society where it is customary to inter the dead as soon as possible.
Shiites in Quetta staged similar protests last year after two devastating bomb attacks targeting their community, prompting Islamabad to sack the provincial government.
Relatives put pictures of the victims with their bodies and sat on the road.
The militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), regarded as the most extreme Sunni terror group in Pakistan and accused of killing hundreds of Shiites since its emergence in the 1990s, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Shiites make up around 20 percent of Pakistan's population, which is largely Sunni Muslim.
A Human Rights Watch report this week said LeJ operated "virtual impunity across Pakistan, as law enforcement officials either turn a blind eye or appear helpless to prevent attacks".
More than 400 Shiites were killed in targeted attacks across the country in 2013, the rights group said.
There were sit-in protests Thursday in about a dozen different locations in Karachi under the banner of Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM), a Shiite representative organisation.
In Lahore, hundreds gathered in front of the provincial governor's house and chanted slogans demanding an operation against militants.
"It is a genocide of Shiites," MWM spokesman Muhammad Muzahir told AFP.
Hundreds of protesters also blocked Faizabad interchange, which links the garrison town of Rawalpindi with neighbouring Islamabad, as part of their protest against the killings. (AFP)