ISLAMABAD – An independent Pakistani human rights commission said Tuesday that rioting that killed eight Christians last week was not spontaneous but planned by the attackers, some of whom belong to an al-Qaida-linked group.
The findings were released the same day Pakistani police began questioning more than 200 people to determine if the attacks were premeditated, said Punjab province Law Minister Rana Sanaullah. Another top official suggested militants fleeing an army offensive in the northwest Swat Valley were also involved.
Hundreds of Muslims attacked a Christian neighbourhood in the eastern Pakistani city of Gojra on Saturday after reports that Christians had desecrated a Qur’an. The assault, in which dozens of homes were also burned, underscored the precarious existence of religious minorities in this Muslim-majority nation where extremist Islam is on the rise.
Sanaullah told The Associated Press that members of the banned Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its al-Qaida-linked offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were arrested as suspected attackers.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said its fact-finding team interviewed the families of victims, residents, witnesses and officials. Commission head Asma Jahangir said in a statement that announcements made from mosques the day before called upon Muslims to “make mincemeat of the Christians.”
The statement said many of the attackers came from a neighbouring district, Jhang – the birthplace and stronghold of the banned militant groups.
“The attackers seemed to be trained for carrying out such activities,” she said.
A Pakistani intelligence report some two months earlier suggested militant groups may be switching from suicide attacks to creating sectarian strife in cities, Sanaullah noted.
“We need to locate and arrest those who were wearing masks during the carnage,” he said, referring to the attackers who were covering their faces during the rioting to avoid being identified.
The demonstrations began Thursday but reached their violent zenith Saturday, allegedly after hardline clerics began making speeches against the Christians. Authorities say an initial probe had debunked the claims that the Muslim holy book was defiled.
Christians in the community attended special church services for the victims Tuesday.
Separately, Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer, on a visit to Gojra, said “those who were evicted from Swat have a hand in this incident.” Taseer offered no evidence to back up this claim.
Pakistan’s army is engaged in a three-month-old offensive in Swat, a northwestern valley that was once a prominent tourist destination. The military claims to have killed 1,800 suspected militants in the operation.
Christians – including Protestants and Catholics – make up less than 5 per cent of Pakistan’s 175 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. They generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbours.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif promised Tuesday that the government would cover the cost of rebuilding the charred houses and pledged to bring the perpetrators of the weekend attack to justice.
“There couldn’t be any cruelty more harsh than this,” he said in an address to Christians in Gojra.
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan are often misused to settle personal scores and enmities, in some cases against Muslims as well.
Police reported another such case Tuesday. Angry labourers instigated by a manager shot dead their factory owner and ransacked offices in the eastern city of Sheikhupura, alleging that he had desecrated Qur’an, said police official, Sohail Chatha.
Another official, Khusro Pervez, said there was enough evidence to suggest that the manager and the owner had a personal dispute over wages and an outstanding debt.
Pakistan has also been fighting militants in its semiautonomous tribal regions in the northwest. In the latest violence, four security forces and 11 civilians died, two intelligence officials said Tuesday.
Suspected militants fired rockets at a military base camp in the North Waziristan tribal region late Monday, killing the four security forces. Also late Monday, mortar shells hit two homes in two villages of the same region, killing 11 civilians, the officials said. It was not clear who fired the mortars.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.