Pakistan faces growing anger over sectarian bombings

QUETTA, Pakistan (REUTERS) - Pakistan's unpopular government, which is gearing up for elections expected within months, came under fire on Sunday for failing to improve security after a sectarian bombing in the city of Quetta killed 81 people.

The nuclear-armed country's leaders have done little to contain hardline Sunni Muslim groups that have stepped up a campaign of bombings and assassinations of minority Shi'ites.

On Saturday, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), seen as the most ruthless Sunni sectarian group, claimed responsibility for the attack in Quetta, which deepened suspicions among Shi'ites that Pakistan's intelligence agencies were turning a blind eye to the bloodshed or even supporting extremists.

"The terrorist attack on the Hazara Shi'ite community in Quetta is a failure of the intelligence and security forces," Mr Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, governor of Baluchistan province, said while touring a hospital.

Leaders of the ethnic Shi'ite Hazara community called on the government to take decisive action, and Pakistanis warned that sectarian violence was spiralling out of control.

"The government is responsible for terrorist attacks and killings in the Hazara community because its security forces have not conducted operations against extremist groups," said Mr Aziz Hazara, vice-president of the Hazara Democratic Party. "We are giving the government 48 hours to arrest the culprits involved in the killing of our people and after that we will launch strong protests."

The death toll from Saturday's bombing rose overnight, with most of the casualties in the main bazaar of the town, capital of Baluchistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Most of the dead were Hazaras. A senior security official said the figure could rise as 20 people were critically wounded.

On Sunday, people searched for survivors under blocks of cement torn off buildings by the blast. A large blood stain could be seen on a wall near the site. Many shops and bazaars were closed. Relatives of the wounded responded for an appeal for blood made by hospitals.

"The government knows exactly who is doing what and who is behind all this," said Mr Mohammad Imran, a local trader. "If the government wants (to prevent it), no one can take even a kitchen knife into any market."

Critics said Pakistan's intelligence agencies previously supported groups like LeJ to fight against Indian forces in Kashmir and failed subsequently to control them. Now, Shi'ites in Quetta and other cities say they are under siege.

"We have grown tired of picking up the bodies of our loved ones," said Mr Nasir Ali, 45, a government employee. "I have lost three family members so far in such blasts."

LeJ has also said it was behind a bombing last month in Quetta which killed nearly 100 people, one of Pakistan's worst sectarian attacks.

After that incident, Shi'ite leaders called on Pakistan's military to take over security in Quetta and take on the LeJ.

Growing sectarian violence is piling pressure on the US-backed administration, which already faces a Taleban insurgency, to deliver stability.

"This is a case of barbarity and heartlessness. This is happening because we are divided and not supporting each other," said Mr Malik Afzal, a Sunni student. "Unless we decide to unite, we will continue to get killed. Today, they (Shi'ites) have died. Tomorrow, we (Sunni Muslims) will die. The next day, others will get killed."

Pakistani intelligence officials say extremist groups, led by LeJ, want to destabilise the nation through sectarian violence and pave the way for a Sunni theocracy.

More than 400 Shi'ites were killed in Pakistan last year, many by hitmen or bombs. Some hardline Shi'ite groups have struck back by killing Sunni clerics.

"If the government cannot give protection to our community then allow us to protect our own," said Mr Ghulam Abbas, 32, a political worker for the Hazara Democratic Party.

The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites developed after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, when his followers could not agree on a successor.

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