Pakistan extremists attack again, threaten wider war

McClatchy NewspapersMay 28, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Islamic extremists attacked two marketplaces and two police posts Thursday in northwest Pakistan, killing at least six civilians and five soldiers, and they also took credit for a deadly vehicle bombing Wednesday in Lahore and threatened more attacks in major cities throughout the Punjab heartland, police said.

The assaults and threats appear to be motivated by revenge for the military's advances in its offensive to recapture the Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province from Taliban extremists.

Police said the militants had packed the explosives on two motorcycles, which they parked at crowded marketplaces in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province and a key city on a main supply route for U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan. After detonating the explosives, the extremists fought police in gun battles that ended with two militants killed and at least one arrested.

There were separate bomb attacks on a security checkpoint outside Peshawar, in which five soldiers were killed, and in Dera Ismail Khan, about 150 miles to the south.

The violence followed a gun and bomb assault Wednesday in the eastern city of Lahore that killed at least 30 people and wounded 250. The Pakistani Taliban on Thursday claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack, which targeted the offices of the Pakistan military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and destroyed a police complex.

Hakimullah Mehsud, who commands Pakistani Taliban in three tribal agencies along the Afghan border, warned Thursday that the Lahore attack was only a taste of things to come.

"We want the people of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Multan to leave those cities, as we plan major attacks against government facilities in coming days and weeks," he told the Reuters news agency.

Those cities are in Punjab province, the heart of Pakistan, which comprises some 60 percent of the country's population and much of its industry and agriculture. Up to now, the Punjab had been shielded from the worst of the violence. Destabilizing it could push the nuclear-armed nation into chaos.

Mehsud, a deputy to the main leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, is thought to be the main organizer of attacks on U.S. supply convoys to Afghanistan.

Under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani military launched an operation late last month to drive marauding Taliban guerrillas out of the Swat valley and adjoining areas in the North West Frontier Province. Until the attack in Lahore this week, some analysts had been surprised at the absence of a response from extremists.

There were two other bombings earlier this month in Peshawar, and by virtue of its location on the edge of the tribal area — which is the base for Taliban, as well as al Qaida — the bustling city could take the brunt of the militants' anger over the Swat offensive.

The Swat Taliban are part of the umbrella Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan movement, which has links with jihadist groups across the North West Frontier and Punjab provinces.

The government offered a $60,000 bounty Thursday for the capture, alive or dead, of Maulana Fazlullah, the chief of the Swat Taliban, and smaller amounts for 20 other Taliban leaders.

"Since they (the Taliban) are being defeated, they are trying to take it out on innocent people," said Mian Iftikhar, the information minister of the North West Frontier Province government.

Separately, the Pakistani army reported Thursday that it had taken control of about 70 percent of Mingora, the main city in Swat, and said the city would be cleared of insurgents within three days. The army is charging through Swat at a pace that's surprised some experts.

Pakistani forces moved into Mingora, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the valley, on Saturday. Brig. Gen. Tahir Hamid, who's in charge of the Mingora operation, said the military had killed 286 militants in and around the sprawling city.

"Control of the city was taken back from the miscreants," Hamid said. "We've been very careful not to use artillery in built-up areas and not to use Cobras (attack helicopters) in built-up areas."

The army also entered Bahrain, a town in the north of the Swat valley that had been isolated for three weeks with dwindling food supplies. Locals said the Taliban had escaped from the town before the Pakistani forces arrived and that the army was welcomed with flags and flowers.

Zubair Torwali, a resident of Bahrain who fled to Islamabad before the Swat offensive, said his friends and relatives still in the town "are now feeling very relaxed."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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