QUETTA (AFP) - Hateful graffiti messages against Shias are scrawled along main roads. The striped flags of a banned militant faction accused of hundreds of murders flutter from homes.
These are the outskirts of Quetta, from where Shia leaders say extremists towed a giant bomb by tractor to kill 90 Shia Hazaras on February 16, after dispatching suicide bombers to kill 92 others at a snooker hall a month earlier.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group officially banned by the government in 2002, claimed responsibility for both attacks. Local Shias say they know who the organisers are, and where they live, and yet the authorities do nothing. An AFP reporter saw no sign of police or paramilitary in Akhtarabad, the run-down neighbourhood from where Shias claim the bombers drove the giant bomb.
Nor was there a security presence in Killi Kambrani and Killi Badeni, dens of suspected kidnappers and criminals, covered in slogans for jihad and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), described as the ‘political wing’ of LeJ. Bombers determined to exterminate Shias have slaughtered more than 250 people since January 10 and questions are being asked about possible political and security forces collusion.
“Akhtarabad is their hub and main hideout. Everybody knows they come from there to attack Hazaras but nothing has been done,” said Shia community leader Syed Mussarrat Hussein in Quetta.
Daud Agha, local president of the Shia Conference, said tip-offs about impending attacks are ignored and the ASWJ tolerated.
Amnesty International has said the failure of the authorities to bring those responsible for sectarian violence to justice “sends the signal that they can continue to commit these outrageous abuses with impunity”.
So how and why does LeJ operate with such apparent freedom? There are many theories.
“LeJ got stronger in Balochistan after the start of the Baloch insurgency,” says Anwar Sajidi, a Baloch rights activist and chief editor of Quetta-based newspaper Intikhab.
“The government is supporting LeJ as a counter-insurgency strategy to show the world that sectarian violence is also on the rise and the Baloch separatist movement is not the only reason for killings.”
LeJ, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, was created in the 1990s out of the same pool of fighters trained and nurtured by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States in the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Last month the chief military spokesman categorically denied the armed forces were in contact with militants, including the LeJ.
LeJ founder and ASWJ vice president Malik Ishaq has been accused in more than 40 murder cases but was free until being taken into custody on February 23 for posing a risk to law and order. Others say LeJ is protected because of the electoral support it can harness in central Punjab, a key battleground in upcoming national elections where the Pakistan Muslim League-N is in power.
“This politics of expediency may win the party a few more seats in the upcoming elections, but the move would provide further space to religious extremism already on the rise,” author Zahid Hussain wrote in a local newspaper.
There is little to distinguish the ASWJ from LeJ in public.
“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was created in reaction to injustices by the government,” says Ramzan Mengal, the Balochistan president of the ASWJ.
“We can ask the LeJ men to negotiate with the government but the authorities will have to stop being influenced by Shias.”
A senior police official in Quetta told AFP his force was too weak to act, because the LeJ and ASWJ had too much financial and logistical support.
Until the government develops a ‘multi-pronged’ strategy to shut down their support networks, he warned, Shias will continue to be slaughtered.
Many people in Balochistan say there is an international element to the violence, believing that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are fighting a proxy war on Pakistani soil.
Religious schools that have educated millions of Pakistanis in a hardline Sunni interpretation of Islam are also partly to blame.