ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan on Tuesday ordered a security operation in response to the weekend bombing targeting minority Shiites that killed 89 people in the southwestern city of Quetta. The government also replaced the top police officer in the surrounding Baluchistan province.
It's unclear whether the actions will appease thousands of Shiites protesting for a third day in Quetta, the provincial capital. The protesters have refused to bury the bombing victims until the army takes control of the city and launches a targeted operation against sectarian militants attacking them.
A statement issued by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf's office that announced the operation provided no details about who would carry it out or who would be targeted. Shiites have criticized police and paramilitary forces under control of the Interior Ministry in Quetta for failing to protect the minority sect, which makes up about 20 percent of the country's population of 180 million.
Radical Sunni militants have stepped up attacks against Shiites over the past year because they do not consider them to be real Muslims. Violence has been especially bad in Baluchistan province, which has the highest concentration of Shiites in the country. A double bombing at a billiards hall in January in Quetta killed 86 people.
The bomb that ripped through a produce market on Saturday, killing 89 people, was hidden in a water tank that was pulled into the market by a tractor. The militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as the one against the billiards hall in January.
The prime minister's order did not specify whether Lashkar-e-Jhangvi would be the target of the upcoming operation. Shiite leaders in Quetta have also demanded the army go after another banned sectarian group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has also targeted Shiites.
The order simply stated that the prime minister has ordered a "targeted operation aimed at eliminating those responsible for playing with lives of innocent civilians and restoring peace and security in Quetta."
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.
Rights organizations have criticized the government for not doing enough to target militant groups attacking Shiites. 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. Political parties have also relied on banned sectarian groups to deliver votes in elections.
Last year was the bloodiest in history for Pakistan's Shiites, according to Human Rights Watch. Over 400 were killed in targeted attacks across the country, at least 125 of whom were died in Baluchistan.
With two massive bombings targeting Shiites in as many months this year already, 2013 looks like it could be even worse.
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 the current protesters are once again demanding.
This time around the government decided to replace Baluchistan's top police officer and replace him with an official from central Punjab province, said Fayaz Sumbal, deputy police chief in Quetta. Sumbal has also been ordered to replace the chief of police operations in Quetta, he said.
The government is also sending a group of lawmakers to Quetta to assess the situation and meet with Shiite leaders to hear their demands, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
Around 15,000 Shiites once again took to the streets to protest on Tuesday near the site of the recent attack. 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."
Sattar reported from Quetta, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.