Thousands of Pakistani Shiite women refused for a second day Monday to bury victims of a devastating bomb attack on their community, demanding protection against record levels of sectarian violence.
Demonstrators poured onto the streets across the country, shutting down the largest city Karachi and closing the road from the capital to Islamabad airport, in angry protest at Saturday's bombing that killed at least 81 people in Quetta.
Up to 4,000 women blocked a road in the southwestern city, vowing to continue their sit-in that began late Sunday until the authorities take action against the extremists behind the attack which also wounded 178 people.
Two girls aged seven and nine were among the dead after the bomb, nearly a tonne of explosives hidden in a water tanker, tore through a crowded market in a neighbourhood dominated by ethnic Hazara Shiite Muslims.
The attack came just over a month after suicide bombers killed 92 people at a snooker hall in another Hazara neighbourhood of Quetta. Protesters are furious at the authorities' failure to tackle rising attacks on Shiites.
Volunteers armed with automatic rifles and pistols Monday guarded the streets of Hazara Town, the scene of Saturday's attack, an AFP reporter saw.
Police said they were in talks to end the protest. But a local Shiite party leader, Qayyum Changezi, said they "will not bury the dead until a targeted operation is launched".
It is customary for Muslims to bury the dead as soon as possible, but refusing the practice has proved a powerful gesture before.
After the January 10 snooker hall attack, Shiite mourners staged a similar protest for four days. They only buried the dead after Islamabad sacked the provincial government and imposed governor's rule in an apparent attempt to improve law and order.
The banned militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility both for Saturday's attack and the snooker hall bombing, as well as a February 1 attack on a Shiite mosque in northwest Pakistan that killed 24.
There is anger and frustration at the apparent inability or unwillingness of the authorities to tackle the LeJ.
In Quetta Amin Shaheedi, the vice-president of the Shiite Wahdatul Muslemeen party, demanded control of the city be handed over to the army.
"Terrorists are roaming freely and we are not given any protection. Our protest will continue till we get protection," he told reporters.
Violence between Pakistan's majority Sunni Muslims and Shiites, who account for around a fifth of the country's 180 million people, has surged in recent years, with the southwestern province of Baluchistan a particular flashpoint.
Pakistan's biggest city and commercial heart Karachi came to a halt as public transport workers and traders stopped work Monday after a Shiite party called a protest strike, residents said.
Schools were closed, traffic was off the roads and attendance in offices was thin. Several political and religious parties have backed the strike call.
Protesters on the edge of the capital Islamabad also shut down the main road leading to the airport, witnesses told AFP.
In the second largest city Lahore, hundreds of Shiites including women and children demonstrated to press demands for military action against extremists in Quetta.
Attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have claimed almost 200 lives already this year, compared with more than 400 in the whole of 2012 -- a year which Human Rights Watch described as the deadliest on record for Shiites.
Pakistan is due to hold a general election in coming months but there are fears that rising sectarian and Islamist violence could force the postponement of polls.
In the northwest, suicide bombers stormed the offices of a top Pakistani official Monday and killed five people.
Mutahir Zeb, the government's representative in the semi-autonomous tribal district of Khyber, was unhurt. But his deputy was seriously wounded in the attack as officials in the city of Peshawar discussed preparations for the elections.