ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s government has brushed aside an al Qaida ultimatum, pledging to carry out the scheduled executions of three convicted terrorists next week.
The militants warned, in turn, that proceeding with the executions would unleash a murderous campaign of revenge against politicians of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party.
Pakistan’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, said the executions would take place from Tuesday through Thursday next week at a prison in the eastern town of Sukkur.
Sharif vowed on Wednesday, Pakistan’s independence day, to defeat the terrorists. “We are in high spirits,” he said, “and would absolutely defeat the terrorists with the full cooperation of the army and other national security institutions.”
The first three convicts set to die by hanging are members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The Pakistani al Qaida offshoot is notorious for murderous attacks on Shiite Muslims, who compose about 20 percent of the country’s estimated 200 million people.
Al Qaida’s operations chief for Pakistan, Asmat-ullah Muavia, wrote an open letter Monday to Sharif’s party warning that it would “pay a price” if the executions were carried out. The letter was distributed as pamphlets in the militant-heavy North and South Waziristan tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.
Muavia signed the letter in his capacity as the head of the Punjabi Taliban militant faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, as the Pakistani Taliban are called. But he’s better known to the Pakistani authorities and security analysts as the al Qaida operations chief for Pakistan. In that capacity, he wrote a letter in January to the Islamabad government – offering peace talks.
Sharif lifted a five-year moratorium on capital punishment in June, after his Pakistan Muslim League-N party won a general election the month before. Some 8,000 Pakistanis face execution, including about 450 convicted on terrorism charges.
Sharif’s election campaign included a pledge to seek a negotiated peace with the Pakistani Taliban, who’ve pressed a bloody insurgency. The fighting has taken the lives of 48,000 Pakistanis since 2007.
The group responded to Sharif’s peace overtures by not targeting the prime minister’s party or another right-of-center party, the Movement for Justice. The Taliban group did, however, launch a series of attacks that drove the center-left parties of the outgoing coalition government underground.
Muavia warned in the letter that Sharif’s supporters would fall in the crosshairs next if they toed the line of Pakistan’s military. The military, which virtually monopolizes foreign and defense policy, ruled the country for half its 66-year history. The military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Muavia said, is trying to draw Sharif’s administration “in this war.”
Shortly after Sharif’s party won the spring elections, U.S. drone strikes hit North Waziristan. President Barack Obama had called that region the epicenter of global terrorism. One of those strikes killed Waliur Rehman, the de facto leader of the Pakistani Taliban group.
Sharif publicly blamed Pakistan’s generals for the drone strike that killed Rehman, charging that the military had backed the strike to sabotage his plans for peace talks.
The Taliban outfit then worked with its Pakistani al Qaida affiliates, notably Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in retaliation. Its campaign against the security forces and Pakistan’s Shiite minority has claimed more than 300 lives.
That violent push forced Sharif to back away from plans to impose democratic rule unilaterally and to conduct peace talks with the insurgents, without the approval of the military. The country’s generals have publicly opposed peace talks with militants who don’t first lay down their arms and swear allegiance to the Pakistani Constitution.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, told newly commissioned officers late Tuesday that “we can have two views on the strategy against terrorism, but surrendering is no solution.”
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.