Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has expressed his sympathy with members of the ethnic Hazara community protesting against the killing of 10 coal miners in a targeted attack last week, but has referred to a demand that he visit them before they bury their dead as “blackmail”.
Hundreds of ethnic Hazara protesters, members of a community that has faced more than 20 years of targeted attacks that have killed hundreds, have been blocking a highway in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, since the attack took place on Sunday.
The 10 miners were apprehended by gunmen at a coalmine, identified as belonging to the Hazara community and then executed, security officials say.
The ISIL (ISIS) group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.
Since the attack, the relatives of those killed placed their coffins on a highway in Quetta and refused to bury the dead until the killers were apprehended and Khan came to meet them.
“I have sent them a message that look, when all of your demands have been met, then to demand that we will not bury them until the prime minister doesn’t come, no country’s prime minister can be blackmailed like this,” said Khan.
“Because then everyone will blackmail the prime minister of the country.”
Protesters, who have braved the biting cold of winter for six days, have held several rounds of negotiations with members of Khan’s cabinet, including Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed, but to no avail.
“It saddens me greatly that we have a prime minister like this who is not willing to listen to the voice of a mother, a sister or an aged father,” Amna Bibi, whose 18-year-old son and brother were killed in the attack, told Al Jazeera.
“He is not able to see their tears. It causes me such sadness to see such an insensitive person that he is … saying that we are blackmailing him.
“We are only calling him to come here and look at our martyrs’ bodies so he can understand that every year we have more martyrs. That’s the only reason. Because we voted for him, this is our right.
“We will continue to sit here until he comes. That insensitive man has no feelings for us, but we have no problem with sitting with our loved ones in the cold. We have the determination to sit here for weeks.”
Ghulam Hasnain Rajdani, a Hazara community religious leader, also lashed out at Khan for his “blackmail remarks”.
“The president or prime minister of a country acts like the father of that country,” Rajdani told Al Jazeera.
“There are 10 bodies lying [on the road], and they are like the children of the prime minister. So if the children are calling their father to their funerals, how is blackmailing?
“It’s below freezing. Women, children, the elderly, people from every class and sect, including our non-Muslim brothers, are here to offer their condolences.”
Through the week, protests spread to several other cities, including Karachi, Lahore and other towns.
In Karachi, the country’s economic hub and largest city, protests were occurring in at least 19 different locations, with access to the international airport disrupted temporarily by demonstrations on Thursday.
The National Commission on Human Rights estimates that more than 2,000 Hazaras – adherents of the minority Shia Muslim sect, and easily targeted due to their distinctive facial features – have been killed in targeted attacks since 2004.
They have been subject to targeted shootings and mass bomb and suicide attacks, particularly in Quetta, where the majority of the country’s estimated half a million Hazaras reside.
Since 2013, after some of the worst bombings took place, the city’s Hazara population has been largely restricted to residing within two heavily fortified enclaves on either side of the city.
On Friday, PM Khan said he sympathised with the community, but would not accede to the demand to visit them until they buried their dead.
“In our country, the people of the Hazara community, perhaps they have seen the greatest injustice,” he said.
“They have been targeted, and particularly in the last 20 years, since 9/11, the kind of terrorism against them and the kind of injustice against them, they were murdered, no other community has seen that kind of injustice.”
Additional reporting by Saadullah Akhtar in Quetta