Shi'ite Muslims agreed on Monday to begin burying nearly 100 of their people killed three days ago in one of Pakistan's deadliest sectarian attacks after the prime minister said he would comply with their demands to sack the local government.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf met leaders of the Shi'ite Hazara community in a mosque near the site of Thursday's twin bombings in Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, and told them he would dismiss the province's chief minister and cabinet.
He voiced deep sorrow over the killings, which led members of the Hazara community to hold a sit-in next to the 96 unburied bodies of the victims and sparked protests across Pakistan.
Ashraf said he would impose "governor rule", which allows him to replace local authorities, some of whom the Hazara accuse of fomenting violence against them.
"When you will awake in the morning, Governor Rule would have been imposed in Balochistan province," he said in a statement.
In response, the Shi'ites will call off their three-day-long protest sit-in and begin burials on Monday, said Qayyum Changazi, chairman of the Yakjehti Council, a national umbrella organization of Shi'ite groups.
The protesters told Ashraf that hundreds of Shi'ites from the Hazara ethnic group had been killed in Quetta in recent years and that members of the provincial government had sponsored some of the violence.
Ashraf said he and President Asif Ali Zardari "express our deep sorrow and grief over the killing of innocent people of Hazara Shi'ite community who were killed in bomb blasts."
Protests against the Thursday attacks on Shi'ites had spread across Pakistan over the weekend. The attacks, claimed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group, killed at least 96 people.
Sectarian killings have been rising in Pakistan even as deaths from other militant violence have dropped.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose roots are in the heartland Punjab province, is a Sunni militant group that wants to expel the Shi'ites, who make up about a fifth of the 180 million population. Human Rights Watch says more than 400 Shi'ites were killed in sectarian attacks last year.
Thousands of protesters chanted religious slogans during Ashraf's visit, many holding placards or pictures of their loved ones. Sunday night was the third day of protest alongside the unburied bodies.
"We want assurances that the killers will be arrested so our younger children will not die also," said Sakina Bibi, 56, sitting by the coffins of two of her sons.
"They were my everything," she said, weeping. "Sitting here will not bring them back but it is our right to protest."
Islamic tradition demands that the dead be buried as soon as possible. Leaving the bodies of loved ones above ground for so long is such a potent expression of grief and pain that many people in other cities held protests and vigils in solidarity.
Protests spread on Sunday. In the commercial capital Karachi, home to 18 million people, protesters blocked railway lines and the road connecting the airport to the city, while hundreds gathered outside the president's private house.
"If we remain silent now, the whole Shi'ite community will be wiped out in Pakistan and the security agencies won't say anything," said Ali Muhammad, 55.
"We will choke the roads of the entire country if the demands of the Hazara community are not met."
PROTESTS IN LAHORE, PESHAWAR
In the eastern city of Lahore, thousands of people gathered outside the governor's mansion, vowing to stay there in solidarity with the Quetta protesters.
In Peshawar, around 600 people settled down for the night outside the governor's house in protest. Small protests broke out in 11 other cities across the country, including Islamabad.
Two national government ministers and three other senior officials also wrote to the president and prime minister recommending that Balochistan's chief minister, Aslam Raisani, be fired.
Human Rights Minister Mustafa Khokhar said the head of the police and paramilitary Frontier Corps, which has primary responsibility for security in the province, should also be replaced.
"The government has miserably failed to protect the rights of its citizens," he said.
Raisani has been on a private trip to Dubai and has not made any public comments since the attack.
(Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Roger Atwood)