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Protect us, Shi'ites tell army chief after118 die

A Shi'ite Muslim leader has criticised Pakistan's military chief over security after bombings targeting the minority sect killed 118 people.

The rare criticism of General Ashfaq Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in the country, highlighted Shi'ite frustration with the failure to contain Sunni Muslim militant groups who have vowed to wipe out Shi'ites.

"I ask the army chief: What have you done with these extra three years you got [in office]? What did you give us except more death?" said Maulana Amin Shaheedi, who heads a national council of Shi'ite organisations.

Most of Thursday's deaths came in twin attacks on Shi'ites in the southwestern city of Quetta, near the Afghan border, where members of the minority have long said the state turns a blind eye to Sunni death squads.

Outraged Shi'ite leaders called for the military to take control of Quetta to shield them, and said they would not let the 85 victims of the attacks be buried until their demands were met.

The burials had been due to take place after Friday prayers. Mr Shaheedi said scores of bodies were still lying on a road. "They will not be buried until the army comes into Quetta," he said.

Violence against Pakistani Shi'ites is rising and some communities live in a state of siege, a human rights group said yesterday. "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 targeted a snooker club in Quetta. A car bomb blew up nearby 10 minutes later after police and rescuers arrived. Nine police and 20 rescue workers died. In all, 85 people were killed and 121 wounded.

The banned Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the attack, in a Shi'ite neighbourhood where residents are Hazaras – Shi'ites whose forebears migrated from Afghanistan in the 19th century.

US intelligence agencies have focused on al Qaeda and the Taliban, but Pakistani intelligence officials say LeJ is becoming a graver threat to Pakistan.

It has stepped up attacks against Shi'ites across the country but has zeroed in on members of the sect who live in resource-rich Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is capital.

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

"The LeJ operates under one front or the other, and its activists go around openly shouting 'infidel, infidel, Shi'ite infidel' and 'death to Shi'ites' in the streets of Quetta," said Syed Dawwod Agha, a top official with the Baluchistan Shi'ite Conference.

"We have become a community of grave diggers."

Mr Dayan said the country's 500,000 Hazaras have been let down by the state: "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 impoverished region with substantial gas, copper and gold reserves.

In another attack on Thursday, in the Swat valley in the northwest, 22 people died when an explosion targeted people listening to a religious leader.

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 neighbouring India. Security forces deny such links.

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