ISLAMABAD – Hundreds of rioting Muslims attacked Christians in eastern Pakistan on Saturday, burning and looting homes in a rampage that killed six Christians, including a child, and wounded 10 others in the latest violence against minorities in the conservative Muslim country.
The unrest started late Thursday, when members of a banned extremist Muslim organization began torching Christian homes in a village in the Punjabi city of Gojra after allegations that a Quran had been defaced, Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said.
Violence flared again Saturday, when shots were fired on a peaceful Muslim rally passing by a Christian neighborhood, said local minister Dost Mohammad Khosa. It remained unclear who fired the shots, he added.
"That made things worse. We are sure some miscreant elements have tried to exploit the situation," he said.
Television footage showed baton-wielding crowds running through the streets, blocking traffic and a railway line. Ransacked furniture lay outside blackened and burning homes, while a group of people rushed a man with burn injuries on a wooden hand-pulled cart through the streets. Gunfire rang out.
Authorities said the six people killed included a child and four women, while Bhatti said about 40 Christian homes had been burned since Thursday.
Kamran Michael, provincial minister for minorities, said the situation remained tense into the night, although police had dispersed the mob. He said negotiations were under way between government officials, representatives from the minority community and the villagers.
Michael said he feared the death toll could rise as crews cleared the debris of burned houses. He said 10 people had been wounded, four by gunshots, and two of those were in critical condition.
Paramilitary troops were sent to Gojra to help police control the situation, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, amid allegations the police had failed to respond quickly enough to prevent the violence from escalating.
"Usually, Muslims and Christians live together peacefully. There have been some miscreants involved in this incident. We are investigating that," Malik said.
Christians make up a tiny minority of Pakistan's predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 160 million people. Although the two communities generally live peacefully, Muslim radicals have periodically targeted churches and Christians.
Minorities also face intimidation mainly due to discriminatory laws, including one that carries the death penalty for using derogatory language against Islam, the Quran and the Prophet Mohammad. This law is often misused to settle personal scores and rivalries.
"The religious riots ... are frightening, where Islamic religious zealots have taken the law into their own hands," Mehdi Hassan, deputy head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said in a statement.
"Islamic militants from outside the village (have) created an atmosphere of fear and (have) destroyed and burnt property using firearms and explosive," the statement said, and urged authorities to intervene to save the lives of Christians in the area.
Bhatti, the minorities minister, said there was no truth in the allegations that a Quran had been defaced. He accused the police of ignoring his appeal to provide protection to Christians under threat.
Bhatti said the attackers belonged to the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group, which is accused of attacks against security forces and of carrying out bombings at public places in recent years.
Elsewhere, police officials said Saturday they had arrested a member of an outlawed al-Qaida-linked group that was suspected of involvement in the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Rao Shakir, a purported member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of Sipah-e-Sahaba, was arrested on the outskirts of Islamabad late Friday, a police official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a banned Sunni Muslim militant group linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaida and has been blamed for killing scores of minority Shiites across Pakistan.
Its members have been accused of attacks against Westerners in Karachi, including Pearl's killing and the September 2008 truck bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad.
The group is also believed responsible for two failed assassination attempts against Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, as well as for several suicide bombings, including one that targeted a bus of Pakistan's premier spy agency, the ISI.
Another investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said police were questioning Shakir over five bombings. He said authorities believe he is also responsible for facilitating other terrorist attacks and for providing safe houses for militants.
Pearl was abducted in Karachi in 2002 while researching a story on Islamic militancy. His remains were later found in a shallow grave on the eastern outskirts of the city.