x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Suicide bomber kills 41 in Pakistan

Fourth attack in eight days serves as grisly reminder of the ability of the militants, as country prepares for Afghanistan offensive.

A man injured in the attack on the Pakistani military headquarters is moved to a hospital in Peshawar.
A man injured in the attack on the Pakistani military headquarters is moved to a hospital in Peshawar.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan was struck by the fourth wave of terrorism in eight days when a massive car bomb triggered by a suicide bomber ripped through a market in north-western Shangla district yesterday. At least 41 people, including six security personnel, were killed while 45 were wounded in the attack.

The bomb was a grisly reminder of the ability of the militants - presumed to be Taliban - to create havoc in Pakistan, which is preparing for a military offensive in the areas bordering Afghanistan. Pakistani officials also said yesterday that the brazen weekend attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi was aimed at taking senior military officials hostage to negotiate the release of important jailed militants.

A claim that a Punjabi faction of the Pakistani Taliban was behind that strike could be a sign the insurgents have forged links with militants outside their main strongholds in Pashtun areas close to the Afghan border, increasing their potency. The army, however, maintained the attack was launched from South Waziristan, where the military is preparing for what will probably be a long and bloody offensive against the major base of the Taliban along the frontier.

The army has not said when the operation would begin but the interior minister, Rehman Malik, said last weekend that it was "imminent". There was no immediate claim of responsibility for yesterday's suicide attack in Shangla, a district neighbouring Swat Valley in the north-western province, but the suspicion immediately fell on Taliban militants, who have conducted a series of terrorist attacks for more than a week now in an apparent bid to deter the government from launching its military operation in South Waziristan, the rugged mountainous tribal stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.

The bomb blast in Shangla also targeted the armed forces, this time a convoy of vehicles. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the provincial information minister, was quoted by the state-run news media as saying that the suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near a military vehicle. Six soldiers were among those killed in the blast, which left a trail of destruction in the busy, crowded market area. The loud explosion was heard for miles. Twelve of the injured were in a critical condition.

Major Gen Athar Abbas, the spokesperson of the Pakistan army, said in a news briefing broadcast live on local television news networks, that the attack on the army headquarters was planned in South Waziristan. He said intelligence agencies had intercepted communication between Waliur Rehman, the second-in-command of Taliban militants based in South Waziristan, and one of his aides.

"The intercept that was recorded in which Waliur Rehman is talking with some other terrorist - it revealed that this attack was planned in the area of South Waziristan, which is the main base of TTP," Gen Abbas said, referring to Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. He reiterated Mr Mehlik's comments that a decision has been made to launch an operation in South Waziristan but declined to say when the military offensive would commence.

A Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, said the assault on army headquarters was only the first in a planned wave of strikes intended to avenge the killing of their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA missile strike in August. "This was our first small effort and a present to the Pakistani and American governments," he said. He repeated the claim that the raid was carried out by the "Punjabi faction" of the militant group and that it had given orders to militant branches in Pakistan's other provinces - Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province - to launch similar operations.

Although membership of Pakistan's militant groups has always overlapped, the prospect of their joining forces is alarming to the country and its western allies, who need a stable Pakistan to defeat insurgents in neighbouring Afghanistan.Pakistani army officials tried to downplay the attack on the nerve centre of the Pakistan army as a major security breach. Instead they glorified the bravery of the commandos who took part in the rescue operation, which ended a 20-hour siege and freed 39 hostages.

Nine militants and three hostages were killed in the violence in Rawalpindi while the number of soldiers killed rose to 11, with the deaths of three wounded men, a military official said. Giving details of the rescue operation, which was code-named "Janbaz", Gen Abbas said nine terrorists wearing army fatigues were killed while their group leader, Aqeel, also known as Dr Usman, was injured and arrested.

Aqeel, a renegade soldier of the Army Medical Corps, is also alleged to have been involved in the attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team in Lahore this year. The army spokesperson said five terrorists who were killed were from South Waziristan and the other four were Punjabi. The attackers had done immaculate planning, Gen Abbas said. Apart from wearing army fatigues, which confused the guards and officers, the militants drove to the army compound in a white vehicle bearing an army number plate and headquarter insignia on the windscreen.

Brig Anwarul Haq and Lt Col Waseem Ahmed, both of whom worked for the military intelligence unit, came out of their office after they heard firing. Haq saw a person who appeared to be a soldier standing nearby and asked him what he was doing, Gen Abbas said, citing accounts from witnesses. "He turned around and shot him." Gen Abbas said 22 hostages were bundled into a small room by one attacker who was wearing a jacket filled with explosives.

The rescue operation was planned in a way to eliminate that attacker first so as to ensure the safety of maximum number of hostages, Gen Abbas said. Commandos managed to eliminate the suicide bomber before he could detonate his explosives. During the gruelling hours of the siege, the attackers tried to justify their actions while the army officials told them that they were on the wrong side, the army spokesperson said.

Pakistani officials claim that several splinter groups of banned extremist groups in Punjab province had formed linkages with the Taliban militants in South Waziristan. But the officials denied that militants had enough support in the southern part of the Punjab province to challenge the writ of the state as they have in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. Also yesterday, a court in Lahore dismissed two terrorism-related cases against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a banned militant group accused of carrying out terrorists attacks in Mumbai last year. More than 160 people were killed in the attacks.

Mr Saeed was accused of making inflammatory speeches against the government and collecting funds for his charity. A two-member bench of the Lahore High Court quashed the charges. India has accused Mr Saeed of being one of the masterminds of the attacks, but Pakistani officials say they do not have enough evidence to move against him. foreign.desk@thenational.ae