QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Talks between Pakistani officials and Shi‘ite leaders on Saturday failed to quell a protest that brought thousands onto cold, wet streets for a second night to watch over the bodies of 96 people killed in one of Pakistan’s worst sectarian attacks.
Leaders of the Shi‘ite Hazaras, the ethnic group that was the target of Friday’s twin bombings in the provincial capital Quetta, were vowing not to bury their dead until authorities promised to protect them from a wave of sectarian attacks.
Around 2,000 people spent Friday night keeping vigil at the site of the bombings - claimed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) Sunni militant group - spreading plastic sheets over the shrouded bodies to keep the rain off them.
By Saturday, the number had swelled to around 5,000.
Muslim tradition requires that bodies are buried as soon as possible and leaving them above ground is a powerful expression of grief and pain.
A government delegation led by Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Syed Khurshid Shah met Shi‘ite leaders late on Saturday after they complained about what they believe is the indifference of most Pakistani politicians to their plight.
Qayyum Changazi, chairman of the Yakjehti Council, a national alliance of predominantly Shi‘ite organisations, said the talks had produced no result and the protest would continue until the army took over Quetta and the Balochistan provincial government was dismissed.
The Balochistan chief minister was in Dubai and unavailable for comment.
As the sky darkened, protesters wrapped up in heavy coats and shawls and burned small coal fires to keep warm. Many held candles and some wept next to the coffins of their relatives.
Small protests were also held in the cities of Lahore, Karachi and the capital, Islamabad, where around 200 protesters held candles and placards demanding an end to attacks on Shi‘ites, who make up 20 percent of Pakistan’s population.
Parliamentarian Bushra Gohar from the Awami National Party (ANP) was the only prominent politician attending the protest in the capital.
She said there were several reasons why officials had been slow to respond: support for militants, fear or indifference.
“It could be pure callousness,” she said. “Many political parties also support these groups. They are proxies.”
Security policy in Pakistan is dominated by the army, which denies accusations that it retains ties to militant groups, in part to counter the influence of India.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has seen some of its own senior politicians gunned down, has often been unwilling to speak out against militants for fear of being targeted. (Writing and additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Myra MacDonald and Kevin Liffey)