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Pakistan sacks Baluchistan government after massacre

Ruling party forced to act after public protests over Sunni terrorist attacks on Hazara community spread across country

An upsurge of public anger over the massacre of almost 100 members of a religious and ethnic minority last week has forced Pakistan's beleaguered ruling party to sack the government of the country's largest province.

The late-night announcement on Sunday to dissolve the elected assembly of Baluchistan, sack its much-criticised chief minister and give executive authority for the province to a governor appointed by Islamabad came after the relatives of those killed in a brutal bomb attack staged an emotionally charged protest with the bodies of 86 of their loved ones.

Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the prime minister of the Pakistan People's party-led government, was then forced to act after public protests enveloped the country over the weekend.

The widespread fury over last week's carnage even managed to eclipse another crisis that has gripped Pakistan's politicians: the beginning of a "million man march" on the capital led by an Islamic cleric that many fear is an attempt to derail forthcoming elections.

Nearly 100 people died during attacks in Quetta last Thursday that also wounded another 120. For three days the mourning relatives of the victims had refused to bury their dead, choosing instead to endure cold temperatures and sit with thousands of others on Alamdar Road, the street in Quetta, Baluchistan's restive capital, that was hit by the double suicide attack on a snooker hall.

Nearly all of them were from Quetta's 500,000-strong community of Hazaras, an ethnic minority almost entirely belonging to the Shia sect of Islam, which has been targeted by terrorist groups drawn from Pakistan's majority Sunni population. Such groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claimed responsibility for the blast, regard Shia Muslims as heretics.

As Islamic tradition requires bodies to be buried quickly, the Hazaras' gesture acquired enormous religious and emotional resonance.

They said they would not leave until their demands were met, including the imposition of military rule in the province. Although the prime minister did not announce an army takeover, he said the governor, Nawab Zulfiqar Magsi, could call for army assistance at any time.

Protesters across the country followed their example, staging sits-ins and demonstrations in all of Pakistan's major cities. Some major roads were also blocked by protesters and there were reports of violence in the southern city of Karachi.

Sectarian murders are a growing problem in Pakistan, including in the northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan, where buses carrying Shias have been attacked by gunmen. Human rights groups have criticised the government for its inaction, even accusing the military of deliberately turning a blind eye to the activities of sectarian terror groups.

Raza Rumi, a commentator from the Jinnah Institute thinktank, said the Quetta attack could be a turning point.

"This heroic gesture by Hazara families [in Quetta] has inspired ordinary citizens and Pakistan's scared civil society to come out and be counted and basically put an end to terrorism.

"It is a turning point provided that the dismissal of the Baluchistan government is not the end of the matter and there is an actual crackdown against these militant groups."

Ashraf visited Quetta on Sunday where, late at night, he addressed the crowd of mourners and announced the imposition of the rule by a governor appointed by the president in Islamabad.

On Monday the Hazara community began burying their dead.

Many will be glad to see the back of Aslam Raisani, the former chief minister who has been criticised for being largely absent from Baluchistan throughout his administration.

But the decision to remove the provincial government has angered important coalition allies of the Pakistan People's party.

Ainullah Shams, former provincial health minister and member of a political party that is in coalition with the PPP, said the governor's rule was "undemocratic".

He pointed out that last year Pakistan's supreme court had blamed federal agencies, including the country's main military intelligence service, for the chaos in Baluchistan. "In reality, the federal government failed in taking actions against them but the Baluchistan government was sacked," he said.

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