By Deepal Jayasekera
02 August 2003
of Pakistans worst sectarian killings in recent times took place
in early July in the city of Quetta, capital of the province of Baluchistan,
near the countrys border with Afghanistan.
Three gunmen burst
into the Asna-Ul-Asharia mosque on July 4, opened fire and threw grenades
into the crowd of more than 2,000 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers.
At least 53 people were killed and many others were wounded. One gunman
was shot dead by guards and the other two blew themselves up. The mosque
is one of the citys main centres of worship for the Shiite sect.
Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali immediately pointed the finger at India,
saying that evidence indicated the involvement of foreign hands.
Others have attempted to blame the Pakistani army or military intelligence.
A leading Shiite
cleric, Allama Sajid Navqi, claimed this week that the military establishment
had masterminded the attack to create anarchy and chaos
in the province. Navqi is part of the Islamic fundamentalist allianceMuttahida
Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)which holds power in Baluchistan.
But the direct perpetrators
of the atrocity appear to have been Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), an extremist
militia connected to the Sunni sect. The LEJ has been responsible for
a number of sectarian attacks on Shiites. It was formed in 1996, as
the military wing of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a group that wants
to transform Pakistan into a Sunni theocracy.
A videotape and
letter received by BBC correspondents in Quetta on July 15 claimed responsibility.
The tape showed three men, said to be LEJ members, one of whom delivered
an anti-Shiite diatribe. The letter announced that the LEJ had carried
out a string of sectarian attacks, including the one on the Asna-Ul-Asharia
mosque and the killing of 12 Shiite police trainees in Quetta on June
8, saying these were protests against the government, President Pervez
Musharraf, Iran and the US.
According to the
BBC, the three men in the videotape appeared to match photographs of
the three men killed in the attack on the mosque. Photographs of their
bloodied faces were published in the local press. The police indicated
the following day that they had identified two of the three gunmen but
were still verifying their connection to the LEJ militia.
The LEJ and other
fanatical Sunni groups have a history of sectarian violence in Pakistan.
But these tensions have been inflamed by the US military intervention
in Afghanistan and the ongoing involvement of FBI and CIA agents in
hunting down Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
Many of the countrys
Shiites come from the distinctive Hazara ethnic groupan impoverished
and persecuted minority in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan,
bitter enmity existed between the Taliban regime and Hazara groups.
A brutal massacre of Taliban prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 was
followed by murderous reprisals against Hazaras when the Taliban seized
the city again the following year.
Several Hazara organisations
formed part of the US-backed Northern Alliance that toppled the Taliban
regime, which was based mainly among ethnic Pashtun tribes. Ustad Karim
Khalil, the leader of Hazara-based Hizb-e-Wahdat Islami, is one of three
vice presidents in the Kabul regime installed at the instigation of
As a result, the
groups like the LEJ in Pakistan, which backed the Taliban, lashed out
at Shiite Hazaras, accusing them of being US agents. Tensions were further
inflamed by the US invasion of Iraq, with Sunni extremists accusing
Shiite Hazaras of not participating in antiwar protests.
The slaying of innocent
people at the Asna-Ul-Asharia mosque provoked widespread disgust across
Pakistan. On July 7, several hundred women staged a demonstration in
Multan, carrying banners opposing attempts to create confrontation
between the Shias and Sunnis. Thousands participated in rallies
on July 11 around Pakistan, including in Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad,
Lahore and elsewhere, to protest against the killings.
The Pakistan regime
exploited the attack and the subsequent violent Shiite protests that
erupted in Quetta to send troops to the city. Provincial Governor Abdul
Quadir, a retired general appointed by Musharraf, justified the decision
by saying: We thought with limited resources, the police force
which we have here, it was probably not possible to control the situation.
So we requested civil armed forces and the army to come in.
But Musharraf, who
was in Europe after visiting Washington at the time of the attack, has
been keen to strengthen his hand in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier
Province, where the MMA also controls the provincial administration
following last years elections. On his return, he blamed the attack
on the Asna-Ul-Asharia mosque on either religious extremists or
sectarian terrorists and promised a further crackdown.
The two border provinces
have become bases of operations for anti-US guerrilla groups operating
inside Afghanistan, heightening tensions between the two countries.
Several clashes have already taken place between Afghan and Pakistani
soldiers on the border. Washington is pressing Musharraf to do more
to seal the border and to suppress Islamic extremist groups based in
Musharraf has responded
by using the sectarian massacre to boost the military presence in Quetta,
but such moves are likely to inflame the situation even further.