Thousands of Shiite Muslims from Pakistan’s minority Hazara community ended a nearly four-day protest yesterday after Islamabad caved into their demands for protection by sacking the provincial government.
Men, women and children spent four nights camped in freezing conditions, refusing to bury the victims of Pakistan’s worst single attack on Shiites, which killed 92 people in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday last week.
In other cities across Pakistan, solidarity protests were held by hundreds of other Shiites, who account for 20 percent of the population and suffered record levels of violence last year, according to Human Rights Watch.
The protesters had demanded that the Pakistani Army take over in the southwestern province of Balochistan, which also suffers from a nine-year separatist insurgency and Islamist militancy.
Extreme Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for last week’s twin bombings at a snooker hall, which wounded more than 120 people.
Hazaras were initially divided over whether the government had gone far enough in accepting their demands by appointing a governor to take over, but by 11am, families started leaving to prepare their dead for burial.
“The protest has been called off, burials will be after Zuhar [afternoon] prayers,” Shiite leader Sadat Ali Khan announced at the protest.
A foreign photographer said families had started to take bodies of loved ones killed to a local mosque to prepare them for burial.
Shiite leaders had said overnight that they would not call off their protest until they saw official notification of the orders from Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.
Ashraf flew to Quetta on Sunday to meet the protesters and announced live on television in the middle of the night that the provincial government would be sacked and the governor, appointed by the president in Islamabad, would take over.
He said Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Magsi could call the army at “any time for assistance” and that the top military commander in Balochistan would “directly” supervise paramilitary forces who have the power to arrest and investigate anyone.
“We are determined to defeat this mindset,” Ashraf was quoted as saying by state media in reference to those he accused of trying to create a divide between Shiites and Sunnis. “I have great respect for the sacrifice, tolerance and peaceful behavior of the Hazara community. You are an asset of Pakistan.”
Refusing to bury the dead is an extreme protest in Islamic society, where the deceased are normally buried the same or next day.
The provincial government was widely criticized for being unable to control the myriad security problems in Balochistan and Chief Minister of Balochistan Aslam Raisani was criticized for making a trip to London while security deteriorated.