QUETTA: Extremist bomb attacks that killed 125 people in one of Pakistan’s deadliest days for years, have raised concerns about rising violence in the nuclear-armed country ahead of general elections.
Two suicide bombers killed 92 people and wounded 121 after they targeted a crowded snooker club in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday, in an area dominated by Shiite Muslims from the Hazara ethnic minority.
Extremist Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for what was the worst ever sectarian attack on Shiites, who account for around 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million population.
Hundreds of Shiites staged a sit-in at the devastated snooker hall yesterday, refusing to bury loved ones until the army takes responsibility for security in Quetta from paramilitary and police officers.
The government in Baluchistan province, which is also fighting a separatist insurgency, announced three days of mourning, but the protesters squatted on the road alongside around 30 bodies draped in shrouds and placed in coffins.
“The protest will continue until Quetta is handed to the army,” said Hashim Mousavi, one of the organisers from the Shiite Wahdatul Muslimeen party.
“The government is either incapable of bringing the situation under control or does not want to do anything,” he added.
It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since suicide bombers killed 98 people outside a police training centre in the northwest in 2011 — an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
Earlier on Thursday, a bomb also detonated under a security force vehicle in a crowded part of Quetta, killing 11 people and wounding dozens.
A bomb at a religious gathering in the northwestern Swat valley killed 22 people and wounded more than 80, the deadliest incident in the district since the army in 2009 fought off a two-year Taliban insurgency.
At the snooker club, the first bomber struck inside the building then, 10 minutes later, an attacker in a car blew himself up as police, media workers and rescue teams rushed to the site, said police officer Mir Zubair Mehmood.
“The death toll is now 92,” said police official Hamid Shakeel.
Nine police, three local journalists, several rescue workers and a spokesman for the Frontier Corps paramilitary were among those killed, officials said.
Mohammed Raza, who works for a Hazara ambulance service, said staff had collected two bags of body parts, including limbs, fingers and torsos.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility in telephone calls to local journalists. The group has links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and was involved in the kidnap and beheading of reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002.
The attacks, coupled with violence in the northwest, revived warnings from analysts that an Islamist militancy could threaten national elections, expected sometime in May after parliament disbands in mid-March.
Polls would mark the first time an elected civilian government in Pakistan, for decades ruled by the military, completes a term in office and is replaced by another democratically elected government.
“The government is completely losing control over the situation. Events are taking place one after the other,” security and political analyst, retired lieutenant general Talat Masood said. “The disturbing law and order situation will have adverse effect on polls.”
But a senior official in the Quetta administration, Mohammad Hashim, denied sectarian violence had any bearing on elections. “Incidents of sectarian violence have been taking place in the country for more than a decade. I don’t think it will have an impact on polls. It’s not political, it’s sectarian,” he said.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanded that the government take steps to clamp down on “murdering mayhem”.