Pakistan bombing hints at free rein for radicals in Quetta

A bus bombing in Quetta is the latest attack on Shiite Hazaras. The lack of arrests have prompted the Hazaras to suspect the state is complicit.

By , Correspondent

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    Security officials survey a damaged bus which was hit by a bomb attack in Quetta, Pakistan, June 18. A car bomb exploded near a university bus on Monday killing three students and wounding over 25 other people, most of them students, in Pakistan's southwest, police said, and reported by local media.
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The bombing of a university bus mostly filled with Shiite Hazaras killed at least four students in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province on Monday.

Balochistan borders Afghanistan and is widely seen as the base for the Afghan Taliban leadership. Yesterday's attacks were carried out by another set of jihadis in the region, a reminder that the large Pakistani security presence here has focused more on pinning down an ethnic uprising than cleaning up Islamic militancy. 

More than 130 ethnic Hazaras have been killed in some 30 separate attacks since May 2011, bringing the death toll above 700 in the past 10 years, according to the Hazara Democratic Party (HDP).

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The banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has taken responsibility for Monday's bombing. The Sunni extremist group has openly declared that the community is “worthy of killing” because of its Shiite beliefs.

Considering Pakistan's strong security presence in Quetta, Hazara leaders say their group should have better protection. Some leaders further allege that the government turns a blind eye to Sunni militants in the hopes of distracting ethnic Baloch from their long-simmering, secular nationalist fight. 

Pakistan's security establishment has traditionally viewed ethnic nationalism as a more present danger to the state than Islamic militants, which it has used as tools of foreign policy across the border in Afghanistan. 

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has carried out attacks in Afghanistan, including a December suicide attack in Kabul that killed 80 people. Today, Afghanistan's Attorney General Eshaq Aloko said that though Lashkar-e-Jhangvi planned the attack, “it was masterminded by some spy agencies in our neighboring countries.” His comments are seen as a “veiled reference to Pakistan intelligence,” according to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Inside Balochistan, the accusations are similar. 

“Government agencies are well aware of where our target killers hide out. Yet they fail to arrest them and bring them to justice,“ says Ahmad Ali Kohzad, secretary-general of the HDP. “Our security agencies are allowing these groups to operate in our territory because they constitute a strategic asset for established interests."

Human Rights Watch is also chastising Pakistan for failing to curb, by their count, the killings of 275 Shiites in Balochistan since 2008. “While authorities claim to have arrested dozens of suspects, no one has been charged in these attacks,” the groups said in a statement.

Military presence

Army cantonments occupy around half of the city's territory, checkpoints abound, and 27 platoons (almost 1,000 soldiers) from the Balochistan Frontier Corps (FC) – a federally controlled paramilitary force – patrol the streets alongside city police.

Asmatullah Niaz, the chairman of the Hazara Students Federation (HSF), says that Pakistan's security establishment is allowing militant groups to operate with impunity because it helps dilute a widespread separatist uprising that is taking hold among the province's ethnic Baloch population. 

“The security establishment has tried to pin the blame on the Baloch, in an attempt to turn us against their ethnic group in general, and the separatists in particular,” says Mr. Niaz.

Abdul Hakeem Lehri, a Central Committee member of the Baloch Republican Party – one of the major separatist parties fighting for the independence of Balochistan – agrees.

“There might be some individual, ethnic Baloch involved in Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But they are certainly not Islamists because of their Baloch identity. As nationalists, we condemn the killings of Hazaras and stand by their side in their criticism of a state that has failed to protect them,” says Dr. Lehri.

Niaz says Pakistan is too focused on keeping India, Afghanistan, and the United States from influencing Balochistan, especially since the state provides Pakistan with gas, coal, gold, copper, and other minerals.

“The Pakistani state is strengthening the presence of groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi so they have a network of allies that can act as a buffer against any potential international intervention,” says Niaz.

Baloch uprising

The FC has justified its presence by the widespread Baloch separatist uprising.

"The Baloch Liberation Army is behind the killing of Hazaras," says a prominent member of the Balochistan Frontier Corps, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Frontier Corps also accuses the Hazaras of receiving funding from Iran in order to incite a Shiite revolution in Pakistan.

Balochistan's Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani has also brushed aside the Hazara community’s accusations.

After an attack in October 2011 that killed 40 Hazaras, Mr. Raisani made a statement widely taken as insensitive and indicative of the government's approach to the Hazaras. "Of the millions who live in Balochistan, 40 dead in Mastung is not a big deal. I will send a truckload of tissue papers to the bereaved families," Raisani said to the media in Islamabad following the attack.

"He does not take our problems seriously," says Sajjad Changezi, a member of the HSF.

“[Hazaras] have no interest in receiving funding from Iran or being part of any revolutionary activity. The callousness with which the state makes these sort of accusations and brushes aside our problems is disturbing,” says Kohzad. He points to the fact that many urbanized and highly educated Hazara community members have taken up positions in Pakistan's government and military, indicating their loyalty to Pakistan. “We are a historically persecuted minority. We do not have the strength to take part in any dangerous activity,” he says.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a political and military analyst, agrees. “Obviously, this state does not see you, dear Hazaras, as part of this country. This needs to stop,” said Ms. Siddiqa at an HSF-organized event in Islamabad.

The Hazaras claim to descend from Genghis Khan's Mongol invaders in present-day Afghanistan. Pakistan's Hazaras moved to Quetta late in the 19th century after the then-amir, Khan Abdur Rehman, wiped out some 60 percent of their community in Afghanistan. The Taliban also took part in mass killings, when they slaughtered about 8,000 Hazaras in a 1998 attack in Afghanistan's Mazar-e-Sharif.  

“We hope that international pressure will help bring these killings to an end,” says Niaz.

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