Islamabad — Thousands of Shiite Muslims staged protests across Pakistan on Monday, demanding that the government and military protect them from Sunni extremists after a bombing that killed 89 people Saturday in the southwestern city of Quetta.
Shiites, a religious minority in Pakistan, pointed to the attack — which followed a similar devastating bombing in January — as further evidence of Islamabad’s indifference to what many describe as a deadly, systematic campaign against Shiites in Balochistan province.
The bombings have been aimed in particular at ethnically Hazara Shiites, whose distinctive features also have made them easy, frequent targets of gun-wielding assassins in recent months. Sunni militant groups do not consider Shiites to be Muslims.
Many families of Saturday’s bombing victims are refusing to bury their dead until the Pakistani army takes action against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned militia that asserted responsibility for Saturday’s bombing and for the January blast, which killed more than 90 people.
The sectarian killings and the subsequent unrest present yet another challenge to the strategically vital, nuclear-armed nation, already embroiled in a war against an indigenous Taliban insurgency.
“The government has failed to protect the lives of people and maintain peace,” Maulana Amin Shaheedi, deputy secretary of the main political organization representing Shiite groups in Pakistan, said at a news conference in Quetta, the provincial capital. “We will not bury the victims until the army is deployed in Quetta.”
The paramilitary Frontier Corps is nominally in charge of security in Balochistan, a huge, sparsely populated province that comprises about 40 percent of Pakistan’s land. But Shiite activists and their supporters want a concerted operation by the main military to end the sectarian attacks.
More than 400 Shiites were killed in Pakistan in 2012, the worst year on record for fatal attacks against Shiites, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 125 of those were killed in Balochistan, the group said.
The act of leaving the bombing victims’ corpses unburied, which families of the dead did last month as well, resonates deeply among Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, because Islamic tradition calls for the dead to be buried as soon as possible.
Members of both religious communities have denounced the bombings. Shiites staged sit-ins and demonstrations Monday in cities including Karachi, the country’s largest metropolis, and Islamabad, the capital, to express outrage. Police estimated that 15,000 protesters assembled in Quetta.
“The people of Pakistan have an expectation, however misplaced it might seem today, of the government safeguarding their lives from those who perpetuate violence in the name of faith,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said in a statement. “What happened in Quetta on Saturday highlights the consequences of the government’s failure to crack down on known militant outfits.”
The government’s response to years of persecution of Shiites in Balochistan and elsewhere has been slow and ineffectual, critics say. Last month, days passed before Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf reacted to the first bombing by dismissing the provincial government and putting the provincial governor in charge.
On Monday, President Asif Ali Zardari issued a statement saying he has requested that the governor “take all necessary measures for the security of the Hazaras.”
But Hazara leaders say their own calls for greater security have long gone unheeded.
“There is no will of the government, there are only statements,” Abdul Khaliq Hazara, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, said from Quetta on Monday. “We are compelled to ask the government to pursue these terrorists. They have given them free hand; no investigation is going on.”
For decades, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies groomed Sunni extremists to wage attacks against India and to offset any threat by Shiite Iran. In 2001, Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, but some observers say the militia and its political wing seem to enjoy impunity in targeting Shiites.
“We believe extremism is promoted here,” Hazara said. “We don’t know who gives them shelter, but not a single person has been arrested, not only in these two blasts but in any attacks.”
Syed Khurshid Shah, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, said that an army deployment in Quetta “would not resolve the issue,” noting that the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, another paramilitary force, are already deployed there.
“The truth is that it is intelligence failure,” he told reporters in Islamabad. “The intelligence system needs to be made efficient so that such terrorist attacks could be prevented in future.”
Thousands of Shiites have fled Quetta because of the violence.
“If this killing is not stopped, those Hazara people who are still here will also be forced to leave their homeland,” said Shabir Hussain, a 49-year-old Shiite at the Islamabad demonstration. “No one can blame them; even the children and women of the Hazara are not spared.”
Also Monday, suicide bombers wearing police uniforms stormed the office of a senior political official in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing six people, authorities said.
The attack occurred while the political agent, or tribal administrator, for the adjoining Khyber tribal area was presiding over a meeting of different parties discussing a code of conduct for coming national general elections, officials said.
Leiby reported from Kabul. Mohammad Sharif in Kabul and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.