MULTAN – Pakistan's counter-terrorism police and the country's intelligence agency raided hideouts of an outlawed Shiite militant group in the eastern Punjab province and arrested seven suspects who allegedly wanted to attack leaders of rival Sunni Muslims' groups, a spokesman said Thursday.
In a statement, the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Department said the suspects from the outlawed Sipah-e-Mohammad group were arrested in three separate raids over the previous 24 hours from cities of Sargodha, Khusab and Sahiwal.
It said officers seized bomb-making material and guns that were to be used in sectarian attacks by the arrested men. The suspects were being directed by militant leader Mehmood Iqbal, who was hiding in a neighboring country, officials said. Authorities did not name the country but officials have previously blamed Iran for backing Shiite militants.
Pakistani security forces often make such arrests, but the latest ones came just after Sunni militants killed 11 Shiite coal miners they had abducted from southwestern Baluchistan.
Angered over Sunday's killing of coal miners, hundreds of minority Shiites from the Hazara community have since been rallying in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.
The slain coal miners were also from the Hazara community, which has repeatedly been targeted by Sunni militants, including an Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for the abduction and killing of the miners about 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of Quetta.
Under Islamic tradition, burials take place as quickly as possible after death. But Shiites were refusing to bury the dead. They also said they would not hold funerals until authorities arrest the killers.
On Thursday, opposition leaders including Bilawal Bhutto who heads the country's Pakistan People's Party and Maryam Nawaz, a leader of Pakistan Muslim League party traveled to Quetta where they requested that the Shiites bury the miners. But the mourners refused, saying they will only do so when Prime Minister Imran Khan visits them to assure them their protection. Khan has faced criticism from the country's opposition, which called him a “callous person" for not quickly visiting Quetta for expressing condolence with those Shiites who lost their dear ones in Sunday's violence.
Angered over the killings, Shiite continued their protest for the straight fifth day in Quetta.
Shiites have been demanding a crackdown against Sunni outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba group which has killed scores of Shiite Muslims throughout Pakistan in the past several years. Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups view Shiites as apostates and they frequently target them in deadly attacks.