By Gul and Yousufzai
QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf flew to the city of Quetta on Sunday to meet local Shi'ites holding a protest alongside the bodies of family members killed in one of the country's worst sectarian attacks.
Thousands of the Shi'ite Hazara community, the ethnic group targeted by the blast, have been holding vigils at the site of the blast beside the 96 shrouded bodies. They have spent two nights outside in the cold and rain and are refusing to bury their dead until their safety is guaranteed.
Islamic tradition demands that the dead be buried as soon as possible, and leaving the bodies of loved ones above ground for so long is a potent expression of grief and pain.
The prime minister left early Sunday to address local leaders in Quetta, the capital of the western province of Balochistan, said presidential aide Naveed Chaudhry. The protesters had rejected a delegation led by the minister for religious affairs that arrived Saturday.
So far, the government has not made any public statement about the attacks, which were claimed by banned militant Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The LeJ wants to expel Shi'ites from Pakistan, where they make up about 20 percent of the country's 180 million population.
Shi'ite leaders are demanding that the provincial government be dismissed and that the army take over Quetta to guarantee their security.
"We want assurances that the killers will be arrested so our younger children will not die also," said Sakina Bibi, 56, who sat alongside the coffins of two of her sons.
"They were my everything," she wept. "Sitting here will not bring them back but it is our right to protest."
Sectarian killings have been rising in Pakistan even as deaths from other militant violence have dropped. Human Rights Watch says bombings and gunmen killed more than 400 Shi'ites last year and this year may be even more bloody.
(Reporting by Michael Perry)