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Pakistan targets sectarian death squads

Operation starts amid protests after 89 are slain

Shi’ite families blocked a highway in Islamabad to protest killings in Quetta.

B.K. BANGASH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Shi’ite families blocked a highway in Islamabad to protest killings in Quetta.

KARACHI — The Pakistani government announced a security operation against sectarian death squads in the western city of Quetta on Tuesday, four days after a sectarian bombing killed at least 89 people and led to unusually sharp criticism of the powerful military and its intelligence agencies.

Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf vowed to target the extremists behind Saturday’s bombing, which killed dozens of women and children and targeted a neighborhood in Quetta where Hazara, minority Shi’ites, are concentrated.

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On Tuesday evening, following talks with government officials, Hazara leaders called off countrywide protests that highlighted the failure of Pakistan’s authorities to stem the rising tide of sectarian bloodshed.

Grieving Hazaras, who had demonstrated in Quetta beside the coffins of bombing victims, agreed to abandon the symbolically powerful protest and bury their dead. But participants in the Quetta sit-in and other cities refused to end the protest, continuing to demand that soldiers protect the Hazaras.

Qamar Zaman Kaira, the Pakistani information minister, said targeted operations against militants started in Quetta overnight Monday, resulting in the killing of four militants. At least 170 people were detained and a huge cache of weapons was recovered.

Still, questions remained about the government’s ability to crack down on sectarian extremists who appear to operate with impunity. The target of the operation announced by Ashraf is presumed to be Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack.

Lashkar militants bomb and shoot Shi’ites, whom they believe to be Muslim heretics, across Pakistan, although in Baluchistan province, which includes Quetta, they concentrate on Hazaras, who immigrated from Afghanistan over a century ago and whose members have distinctive Central Asian physical features.

In the Senate on Tuesday, Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, accused some extremists in Baluchistan of having received ‘‘clandestine support’’ — a veiled reference to allegations from human rights groups that the security forces have turned a blind eye to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in return for the militants’ help in quelling a nationalist revolt in Baluchistan.

Earlier, the governor of Baluchistan province, Zulfikar Ali Magsi, accused the intelligence services of being ‘‘too scared’’ or ‘‘too clueless’’ to chase down the extremists.

The military has strongly denied accusations of collusion with the killers, pleading that its forces are thinly stretched. Nonetheless, Pakistanis across the country have been become increasingly alarmed at the strength of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

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