Shias end protests, agree to bury dead

February 20, 2013 - 12:00:00 am

Shia women protest in Quetta on the third day, yesterday. The protest was called off after talks with ministers. 

QUETTA: Pakistani Shias yesterday agreed to bury their loved ones  killed in a recent sectarian bombing, ending four days of protests, after the government said it had arrested 170 suspects linked to the attack. 

The attack at a vegetable market in the town of Hazara on the outskirts of Quetta in Balochistan Province on Saturday killed 85 people and wounded about 200.

In an echo of a protest last month after a similar attack left nearly 100 dead, grieving relatives refused to bury their kin in a rebuke to a government they say has repeatedly failed to protect them. 

Shia leaders called off the protest yesterday after Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said four suspects had been killed and 170 arrested within hours of the government announcing an operation against the militants.

“The operation will go on until all culprits are nabbed,” he said.

Those held included the provincial chief of extremist Sunni outfit Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, an alleged mastermind of Saturday’s bombing.

Pakistan has a poor record when it comes to prosecuting terror suspects. More than 60 percent of suspects brought before anti-terrorism courts in Punjab province were released in 2011.

“All our demands have been met,” said Shia leader Amin Shaheedi. “The government has assured us that Quetta will be protected now and such incidents will not be repeated.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had replaced the provincial police chief and offered to heavily fortify the Hazara Shia enclave in Quetta. 

The Hazara community is a distinctive ethnic group whose features and dialect make them easy targets for Sunni militants. 

Protests in support of Shias in Quetta were also held in other cities across the country.

In the commercial hub of Karachi, protesters blocked the road to the airport. In the capital of Islamabad, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court, where the chief justice has opened hearings into the violence. 

He has demanded reports from intelligence services on what they are doing to counter the threat from the Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. 

The LeJ claimed responsibility for Saturday’s bombing and the one last month that claimed nearly 100 lives. Their  campaign of bombings and assassinations of minority Shias is a bid to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan and install a Sunni theocracy.

Sectarian attacks increased last year, killing more than 400 Shias across Pakistan. 

On Monday, a Shia doctor famed for his charity work was shot dead along with his 11-year-old son as he took the boy to school in the eastern city of Lahore. Community leaders said it seemed to be a sectarian attack.

Daud Agha, Chairman of the Baluchistan Shia Conference which was one of the groups taking part in the protest, said a time would be announced for the burials to begin. Another senior Shia leader, Sikandar Gilani, said the matter could be resolved if the army gave a guarantee they would launch an operation against the extremists.

In the courtyard of a Shia mosque near the protest site, scores of coffins lay in neat rows, most decorated with pictures of the victims. The youngest victim was a five-year-old boy who died along with his mother when the bomb, containing nearly a tonne of explosives, demolished a shopping centre.

In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the bombing and called on Pakistani authorities to take action against the perpetrators of the attack, Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.

The UN secretary general “calls for swift and determined action against those claiming responsibility and perpetrating such actions,” Nesirky said. He expressed the UN’s support for the Pakistani people and the government’s efforts to curb violence against ethnic groups.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai also condemned the attack.