Quetta: Thousands of Shiites ended three days of protests in southwestern Pakistan on Tuesday after the government launched a paramilitary operation against militants responsible for a weekend bombing targeting the minority sect that killed 89 people.
The protesters in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, began preparations to bury the bombing victims after Shiite leaders announced an end to the demonstration. Relatives had refused to bury their loved ones until the army took control of Quetta and launched a targeted operation against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group that claimed responsibility for Saturday’s bombing.
Shiites comprises up to 20 per cent of the country’s population of 180 million.
There was no indication the army would take control of the city. But the government announced that paramilitary forces began an operation against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other militant groups Monday night.
Four members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, including a senior commander, were killed in a shootout on Tuesday, and over 170 other suspected militants were arrested, said Balochistan’s home secretary, Akbar Hussain Durrani.
The government also replaced the top police officer in Balochistan on Tuesday, said Fayaz Sumbal, deputy police chief in Quetta. Sumbal has also been ordered to replace the chief of police operations in Quetta, he said.
“Our demands have been accepted,” a top Shiite leader in Quetta, Ameen Shaheedi, told reporters after holding talks with a government delegation sent from Islamabad. “We appeal to our people to go to their homes in a peaceful manner.”
It remains to be seen what impact the government’s actions will have on the problem of sectarian violence in Quetta. Suspected militants are notoriously difficult to Violence has been bad in Balochistan with a double bombing at a billiards hall in January in Quetta that killed 86 people.
Pakistan has launched numerous military operations against militants in recent years, but the focus has been on the Pakistani Taliban, who have been waging a bloody insurgency against the state that has killed thousands of people.
The four Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants killed Tuesday in a suburb of Quetta included Shah Wali, a senior commander involved in attacking Shiites and police officials, said Durrani, the home secretary. Others included Abdul Wahab, a key planner and recruiter” Naeem Khan, a logistics expert who provided explosives” and Anwar Khan, a rank and file militant, said Durrani.
Seven other Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants were arrested in the operation Tuesday, said Durrani. The more than 170 suspected militants arrested earlier included Haji Mohammad Rafiq, a prominent member of another Sunni extremist organisation, Ahle Sunnat Waljamaat, said the home secretary.
Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf first announced the operation in a statement issued by his office on Tuesday that said it “aimed at eliminating those responsible for playing with lives of innocent civilians and restoring peace and security in Quetta.”
The government promised to take action against sectarian militants following protests in January against the billiards hall bombing. Shiites brought the bodies of the victims into the street at the time and refused to bury them unless the government took steps to protect them.
After four days, Islamabad decided to dissolve the provincial government and put a federally-appointed governor in charge. The government said paramilitary forces would receive police powers and launch an operation against the militants behind the billiards hall attack. But officials refused to put the army in control of the city, as they have done this time around.
Around 15,000 Shiites took to the streets to protest near the site of the recent attack Tuesday, before their leaders called an end to the demonstration. Others stayed beside the bodies of the bombing victims inside a nearby mosque. Some chanted “God is great.” Others held placards that said “Stop killing Shiites.”
Shiite leaders made speeches to the crowd saying their demands had been accepted and urged them to disperse peacefully after the talks with the government delegation. They also urged Shiites in other parts of the country, such as Karachi and Islamabad, to end smaller protests held over the past few days.