QUETTA, Pakistan — Pakistan's prime minister on Friday appealed on protesting minority Shiites not to link the burial of 11 coal miners from their Hazara community, killed by the Islamic State group last week, to demands that he visit the mourners.
Saying that the miners would not be buried until he visits the protesters amounts to blackmail, said Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Since Sunday, hundreds of mourners have been rallying despite cold weather in Quetta, beside the coffins of the miners. They want Khan to visit them to assure their protection.
Under Islamic tradition, burials take place as quickly as possible after death. But the Shiites have continued their sit-in to protest the killing of the miners in Baluchistan province, where Quetta is the provincial capital.
The protesters have vowed to keep up the sit-in for several months if Khan doesn't accept their key demand. They were planning to also hold a sit-in in the capital, Islamabad, where dozens of Shiites rallied on Friday night, denouncing Khan for calling the mourners blackmailers. The miners were killed on Sunday after being abducted near the Machh coal field, 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of Quetta.
"No premier of any country should be blackmailed like this," Khan said in televised remarks from Islamabad.
The opposition and Khan's critics quickly chastised him on social media over the remarks, saying they lacked compassion for the mourners who have been protesting for six straight days. Maryam Nawaz, a leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League party, said Khan was insensitive and that his ego prevented him from doing the right thing.
Khan said his government had accepted all other demands of the mourners — and that he could travel to Quetta immediately after the miners' bury their loved ones first. But the Shiites rejected Khan's offer, saying their protest would continue until he visits them.
"We will not burry our people until Prime Minister Imran Khan comes to Quetta to see our ordeal and suffering," said Arbab Liaquat Ali, a Shiite leader. Around him at the protest, some of the women had blindfolds on and hands tied behind their backs in a sign of protest.
Before coming to power in 2018, Khan as opposition leader would criticize prime ministers for attacks on the Hazara community and for not rushing to Quetta to offer condolences.
IS militants abducted and then shot and killed the miners on Sunday in Baluchistan. Police video of their bodies revealed the miners had been blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs before being shot.
The Sunni IS affiliate promptly claimed responsibility and since then, authorities have been raiding militant hideouts to trace and arrest those who orchestrated the killings, though Khan insists Pakistan's neighbor India was behind the violence in Baluchistan.