By Gul Yousafzai
QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Thousands of women, children and activists marched in Pakistan's volatile province of Baluchistan on Wednesday in a protest against a campaign by an Islamist group to force schools to shut down across the region.
Tanzeemul Islam-ul-Furqan (Organization of Islam for the Koran), a little-known group that has been setting schools on fire and distributing threatening leaflets against girls' and Western-style education in Baluchistan, a vast province bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
"At least 35 private schools and 30 language centers have been shut down in the districts of Panjgur and Turbat for well over a week, but government schools are open," Mohammad Ayub, a local education official, told Reuters.
"Apparently they have been allowed to function because their enrolment of female students is very small."
It is rare for women to take part in public rallies in the traditional tribal society of Baluchistan, but on Wednesday, thousands of them marched alongside schoolchildren and political activists to appeal for better security at schools.
Zahid Husain Baluch said he was forced to close his school in Panjgur district on April 26 after receiving threats by telephone as well as menacing leaflets.
Two days later, the militants attacked two schools in a nearby area, setting them on fire, he said.
"Later leaflets inscribed with the name of Tanzeemul Islam-ul-Furqan were distributed in two districts calling for the closure of all schools and warning that violators will be shot dead," Baluch said.
Another school teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "It's a new phenomenon here. Locals have never been opposed to girls' education."
(Writing by Syed Raza Hassan Editing by Maria Golovnina and Ron Popeski)