Rights group warns of worsening Pakistani sectarian violence

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Violence against Pakistani Shi'ite Muslims is rising and some communities are living in a state of siege, a human rights group said on Friday, warning that sectarian violence will only get worse a day after 114 people were killed in bombings.

Most of the deaths were caused by twin attacks aimed at members of the Muslim Shi'ite sect in the southwestern city of Quetta, near the Afghan border.

"Last year was the bloodiest year for Shias in living memory," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch. "More than 400 were killed and if yesterday's attack is any indication, it's just going to get worse."

A suicide bomber first targeted a snooker club in Quetta. A car bomb blew up nearby 10 minutes later after police and rescuers had arrived.

In all, 82 people were killed and 121 wounded. Nine police and 20 rescue workers were among the dead.

"It was like doomsday. Bodies were lying everywhere," said police officer Mir Zubair Mehmood.

The banned Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the attack in a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood where the residents are ethnic Hazaras, Shi'ites who first migrated from Afghanistan in the nineteenth century.

The bombings underscored the myriad threats security forces face from homegrown Sunni extremist groups, the Pakistani Taliban insurgency in the northwest and from nationalist groups in resource-rich Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is capital.

Shi'ite leaders said they wanted the military to take control of Quetta to protect them and they would not allow the 82 victims of the twin bomb attacks to be buried until their demands were met.

The burials had been scheduled to take place after Friday prayers but the bodies would remain in the mosque until the Shi'ites had received promises of protection.

"We won't let them be buried unless the army comes into Quetta," said Maulana Amin Shaheedi, who heads the Shi'ite Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslameen, an umbrella organization formed in 2008 to unite Shiite organizations and clerics.

The paramilitary Frontier Corps is largely responsible for security in Baluchistan province but Shi'ites say it is unable or unwilling to protect them from the LeJ.


The LeJ wants to impose a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan by stoking Sunni-Shi'ite violence. It bombs religious processions and shoots civilians in the type of attacks that pushed countries like Iraq close to civil war.

LeJ leader Malik Ishaq was released last year after spending 14 years in jail in connection with dozens of murder and terrorism cases.

The roughly 500,000-strong Hazara people in Quetta, who speak a Persian dialect, have distinct features and are an easy target, said Dayan of Human Rights Watch.

"They live in a state of siege. Stepping out of the ghetto means risking death," said Dayan. "Everyone has failed them - the security services, the government, the judiciary."

Earlier on Thursday, a separate bomb killed 11 people in Quetta's main market.

The United Baloch Army claimed responsibility for that blast. The group is one of several fighting for independence for Baluchistan, an arid, impoverished region with substantial gas, copper and gold reserves.

Baluchistan constitutes just less than half of Pakistan's territory and is home to about 8 million of the country's population of 180 million.

In a separate attack on Thursday, in Mingora, the largest city in the Swat valley in the northwest, at least 21 people were killed when an explosion targeted a public gathering of residents who had come to listen to a religious leader.

No one claimed responsibility for that bombing. Swat has been under army rule since a military offensive expelled Pakistani Taliban militants in 2009.

Sectarian attacks in Pakistan have risen even as overall deaths from militant violence have fallen over the past two years. But Pakistan's security forces and its overburdened justice system are struggling to cope.

Human rights groups say the government must investigate whether some of the groups have links to elements within Pakistan's security services.

The LeJ has had historically close ties to elements in the security forces, who see the group as an ally in any potential war with neighboring India.

The security forces deny any such links.

(Reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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