Shiites bury their dead in troubled Pakistani city
QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani Shiites buried their kin killed in a massive bombing last weekend in the southwestern city of Quetta but the funeral on Wednesday was marred by gunfire as both protesters and police fired into the air.
Shiite Muslims have increasingly come under attack in this Sunni Muslim-dominated country where many extremists do not consider them to be true Muslims.
After Saturday's bombing killed 89 people — the second mass-casualty assault on Shiites in Quetta in as many months — Pakistani Shiites refused to bury their dead for three days and demanded government action. The tension evident at the funeral suggested that recent government attempts to address the problem may not be enough to appease them.
Mourners on Wednesday lowered the bodies of 89 of the victims, wrapped in white cloth, into a long line of graves dug out at the local Shiite cemetery in Quetta.
But a group of about 100 female relatives of the deceased tried to halt the funeral because they felt the government still hadn't met their demands, namely that the army lead an operation against militant groups responsible for the attacks.
The melee escalated as the women then tried to block a main highway close to the graveyard, said Shiite community leader Qayum Changezi. Angry relatives of the deceased pelted police and government officials with stones, Changezi also said.
Both police and relatives fired into the air — the relatives in anger and the police to disperse the crowd — said police officer Fayaz Sumbal.
Mourners scattered after the gunfire but the burial continued after the protest died down.
"We had refused to bury our dear ones with a hope that the government will take concrete steps by arresting the killers, but so far no attacker has been arrested," said Mohammed Mahdi, 16, who lost his father in the bombing. He said he now fears for his family's safety.
There's been no indication that the army would take control of the city, another longtime demand of protesters. But the government announced on Monday that paramilitary forces began an operation against the anti-Shiite militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claimed responsibility for Saturday night's blast, and other militant groups.
The government also replaced the top police officer in Baluchistan on Tuesday. And Fayaz Sumbal, deputy police chief in Quetta has also been ordered to replace the chief of police operations in Quetta.
Shiites and human rights groups have criticized police and paramilitary forces under control of the Interior Ministry in Quetta for failing to protect the minority sect, which comprises up to 20 percent of the country's population of 180 million.
They link the authorities' apparent apathy by pointing to past connections between the country's military and anti-Shiite militants, and also allege that the militants are seen as less of a threat than the Taliban because they are not targeting the state. Political parties have also relied on banned sectarian groups to deliver votes in elections.
It remains to be seen what impact the government's recent actions will have on the problem of sectarian violence in Quetta. Suspected militants are notoriously difficult to prosecute in Pakistan, and it's unclear if the operation against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others will be sustained.
Last month, 86 Shiite Muslims in Quetta were killed in a major attack that eventually led the country's prime minister to sack the chief minister of Baluchistan province and his cabinet. But Saturday's attack showed that militants were still a potent force in the province.
Pakistan has launched numerous military operations against militants in recent years, but the focus has been on the Pakistani Taliban, who are waging a bloody insurgency against the state that has killed thousands of people.
Radical Sunni militants have stepped up attacks against Shiites over the past year, and violence has been especially bad in Baluchistan. In the first two months of the year, more Shiites have been killed there than in all of last year.
Meanwhile, a vehicle carrying a Sunni Muslim leader struck a roadside bomb Wednesday in a remote village of the southern Sindh province bordering Baluchistan. The blast killed the leader and wounded some of his guards, local police official Ghulam Mohammed said.
He identified the slain man as Syed Shafiq Ahemd, the grandson of a prominent spiritual leader, Ghulam Hussain Shah, who has hundreds of thousands of followers in the region. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing and police said they were investigating.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.