Omar Waraich: A brutal escalation of sectarian violence

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Yesterday's massacre was a brutal escalation of sectarian violence in Pakistan's largest and wealthiest province: Punjab.

In the past year, attacks have spread as outlawed hard-line Sunni terror groups have re-emerged. But the latest assault, with its multiple targets and closely coordinated execution, is an approach that has usually been targeted at security personnel rather than religious minorities – and so marks a raising of the stakes.

Last August, masked gunmen laid siege to a colony of Christians in the town of Gojra. Families were forced to flee as 45 homes were set ablaze, and after the assault, nine people lay dead. Last month three members of the Ahmedi community were killed and others subject to armed robberies in the city of Faisalabad.

Blame for both was cast on the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a vicious sectarian group that started life attacking Pakistan's Shias and is now central to a network of militant groups linked to the Taliban. Its even nastier offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is widely considered to be al-Qa'ida's franchise in Pakistan.

Yet far from taking on these groups, the provincial Punjab government has displayed dangerous indulgence. Earlier this year, its law minister toured the town of Jhang alongside the SSP's leader, courting votes in a local by-election.

Yesterday's attack was widely suspected to have been the work of militants closely aligned with the SSP. When al-Qai'da arrived in the western borderlands, hardline Sunni outfits like the SSP and LeJ provided them infrastructure: a steady supply of recruits and a network across the country.

An army offensive in Punjab is unlikely to work and may even inflame the problem. But there is broad support for a concerted police effort against the SSP and like-minded groups. For that to happen, however, the provincial Punjab government will have to grasp the urgency of the problem.

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