Pakistan sacks provincial government after attack
Pakistani leaders dismissed the government of southwest Baluchistan province early Monday in response to the demands of protesters angry about an attack on minority Shiite Muslims there that killed 86 people.
In another part of the country, a roadside bomb killed 14 Pakistani soldiers.
Over the past three days, thousands of Shiites have blocked a main road in the Baluchistan capital of Quetta with dozens of coffins of relatives killed in the twin bombing of a billiards hall in the city Thursday. They demanded the provincial government be dismissed and that the army take over responsibility for the city.
Last year was the deadliest ever for Shiites in Pakistan, with over 400 dead in targeted killings. Violence has been especially intense in Baluchistan, home of the largest number of Shiites in the country.
Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said in a televised address shortly early Monday that the governor has been made head of Baluchistan province, replacing the chief minister. Also, paramilitary forces will receive police powers and launch an operation against militants behind the billiards hall attack.
The prime minister flew to Quetta on Sunday after other efforts to pacify the protesters failed. Human rights organizations have accused the Pakistani government of not doing enough to protect Shiites targeted by radical Sunni Muslims who believe they are heretics.
The billiards hall attack was carried out by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian militant group allied with al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban.
Taliban militants and their allies have also been waging a bloody insurgency against the Pakistani government over the past several years.
A roadside bomb hit a Pakistani army convoy Sunday in a mountainous militant stronghold in the northwest, killing 14 soldiers, one of the deadliest attacks against the army in that sector, intelligence officials said.
The North Waziristan tribal area is a major trouble spot that the military has been reluctant to tackle. The remote region is home to Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida militants at war with the government. It is also used as a sanctuary by other militants who have focused their attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.
The attack Sunday occurred near Dosalli village in North Waziristan, said Pakistani intelligence officials. The blast destroyed two vehicles and damaged a third, they said.
The 14 dead and 20 wounded were brought to a military hospital in the nearby town of Miran Shah, the officials said.
Pakistani military officials confirmed the bombing but said four soldiers were killed and 11 others wounded. The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled.
Then officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Pakistani military is worried that if it targets its enemies in North Waziristan, that could trigger a backlash whereby other militants in the area turn against Pakistan. The most powerful group in the area, the Afghan Haqqani network, is also believed to be seen by the army as a potential ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, making a military offensive even more complicated.
North Waziristan has been a sore point in relations between Pakistan and the United States. Washington has repeatedly pushed Islamabad to launch an operation in the area, especially against the Haqqani network, considered one of the most dangerous groups fighting in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has refused.
North Waziristan has also become an increasing problem for Pakistan. It is the only part of the tribal region where the army has not conducted an offensive, and many Pakistani Taliban militants have fled there to escape army operations. The Taliban and their allies have staged hundreds of attacks across Pakistan that have killed thousands of people.
Also Sunday, a Pakistani cleric and thousands of his supporters left the eastern city of Lahore on a "long march" to demand sweeping election reforms before national elections expected this spring.
Police officer Suhail Sukhera estimated the crowd to be at least 15,000. They left for Islamabad in hundreds of buses, cars and trucks. Some waved flags and pictures of the 61-year-old Sunni Muslim cleric, while others shouted, "Revolution is our goal, brave and religious leader Qadri."
Critics of Qadri, who returned last month after years in Canada, are worried he is bent on derailing elections, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military - allegations the cleric has denied.
Qadri has a large following that extends outside Pakistan and has a reputation for speaking out against terrorism and promoting his message through hundreds of books, an online television channel and videos.
Now, Qadri's focus is on Pakistan's election laws. He is suggesting vaguely worded changes, such as making sure candidates are honest as well as ending exploitation and income disparities so that poor people are free to vote for whomever they want.
His plan to hold a massive rally in Islamabad on Monday has alarmed many members of Pakistan's political system. The government has deployed a large number of police throughout the capital and set up shipping containers to block protesters from reaching sensitive areas.
Qadri accused the provincial government of Punjab, where Lahore is the capital, of harassing his supporters Sunday to make it difficult for them to participate in the march.
"These negative tactics will not work, and God willing the march will reach Islamabad with a sea of people," Qadri told reporters.
Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.