QUETTA, PAKISTAN // At least 15,000 Shiite Muslims took to the streets in southwest Pakistan today in a second day of protests following a bombing that killed 89 people. Relatives of the victims refused to bury their loved ones until the army takes action against the militants targeting the minority sect.
Meanwhile, militants wearing suicide vests and disguised as policemen attacked the office of a senior political official in north-west Pakistan, killing six people, police said.
Pakistan has been besieged by militant attacks in recent years, many of them carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, who have been waging a bloody insurgency against the government. Radical Sunni militant groups have also increasingly targeted the country's Shiites because they do not view them as real Muslims.
Many of these sectarian attacks have occurred in south-west Baluchistan province, which has the largest concentration of Shiites in Pakistan. Many are Hazaras, an ethnic group that migrated from Afghanistan more than a century ago.
The bomb that ripped through a produce market on Saturday in Baluchistan's provincial capital of Quetta was the second mass-casualty attack targeting Shiites in the city in a little over a month. A double bombing of a billiards hall in January killed 86 people.
The death toll from the most recent blast, which was caused by a bomb hidden in a water tank, rose to 89 today after eight people died of their wounds, said Baluchistan's home secretary, Akbar Hussain Durrani.
Outrage over the attacks has grown in Pakistan, and protests were held in over a half dozen cities in addition to Quetta. But it's unclear whether the demonstrations will spark action that will make the Shiites any safer.
Rights groups have criticized the government for not doing enough to crack down on the attacks. They explain this apathy by pointing to past connections between the country's military and anti-Shiite militants, and also allege the sectarian groups are seen as less of a threat than the Taliban because they are not targeting the state.
Despite this criticism, the Shiites in Quetta see the Pakistani army as their only potential savior and are demanding the generals be given control of the city. They blame the provincial government and police for failing to protect them and want the army to take targeted action against sectarian militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claimed responsibility for both the recent bombings in the city.
"We will not bury our martyrs until our demands are fulfilled," a top Shiite leader in the country, Amin Shaheedi, told reporters today at the site of the protest in Quetta.
Some protesters poured into the streets near the attack site carrying signs and chanting slogans against terrorism. Others remained inside a mosque beside the bodies of their relatives, which were covered with white sheets. One young girl wrote on her face, "Don't kill me. I am Shia."
After the bombing in January that killed 86 people, Shiites camped out in the street for four days alongside the coffins of their loved ones. Eventually the country's prime minister ordered a shake-up in the regional administration, putting the local governor in charge of the whole province. But the governor has expressed frustration, saying the recent bombing was the result of a failure of the provincial security and intelligence services.