Taliban claim attack in Lahore was carried out to avenge military offensive in the north-west.
Taliban attack 'revenge for Swat offensive'
LAHORE // Pakistan's Taliban today claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Lahore that killed 24 people, saying it had been carried out to avenge a military offensive in the north-west. Yesterday's gun, grenade and bomb attack was the third deadly assault to rock Pakistan's cultural capital in three months, as al Qa'eda-linked violence closed in on the political heartland of the nuclear-armed country.
About 300 people were wounded when a van packed with nearly 100 kilograms of explosives levelled a police building and damaged the provincial headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence. The bomb struck at the heart of Pakistan's security establishment, which has been pressing a blistering assault against Taliban militants for a month in the mountainous north-west, on a US-backed mission to "eliminate" extremists.
"We claim responsibility for the Lahore suicide attack. It is revenge for the Swat military operation," Hakimullah Mehsud said from an undisclosed location, adding he was a spokesman for Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah Mehsud commands Tehreek-e-Taliban and is Pakistan's most wanted militant, with a $5 million (Dh18.4million) reward posted by the US. "If the government ? at the behest of America ? launches more operations against us, more government installations will be targeted," said Hakimullah Mehsud, who is a commander and deputy to Baitullah Mehsud.
"I appeal to them (citizens of Pakistan) to vacate their cities, as there will be more such massive attacks, more dangerous than this, and we will target government buildings and places," Mehsud added. Baitullah Mehsud commands TTP from the lawless tribal area of Waziristan on the Afghan border in the rugged mountains, where militants branded by Washington as the greatest terror threat to the West are holed up.
His spokesman also claimed responsibility for an assault on a police academy near Lahore March 30, threatening further attacks in Pakistan and the US in retaliation for US air strikes against al Qa'eda-linked militants. Pakistan today stepped up its own fight against the Taliban, offering rewards for 21 chiefs ? wanted dead or alive ? from Swat, which has been ripped apart by a two-year Taliban uprising to enforce Sharia law.
The government listed names and published mugshots, including that of chief Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, who carries the top reward of INR5 million (Dh227,680). Pakistan's military has been locked in battle with Taliban militants in the northwestern Swat valley ? an offensive which the authorities say has killed about 1,200 extremists and sent 2.4 million people fleeing. Analysts warned that the real cost of the operation might have only just begun, warning that the Taliban would make good on further threats of violence.
"It is worrying and a matter of concern that they targeted security agencies and also in the heart of Lahore," said security expert Ikram Sehgal. "The possibility of more attacks cannot be ruled out because the Taliban have suffered badly in Swat. They are surrounded," he added. Attack helicopter and fighter jets bombarded militant hideouts in parts of Swat early today as ground troops removed landmines in the district capital Mingora and established checkpoints, said a military official.
In the neighbouring district of Buner, eight militants were killed and several wounded in fighting overnight, a security official said. In and around Lahore, Pakistan rounded up about a dozen suspects in connection with the bomb attack for questioning, said a security official. Lahore city police chief Pervaiz Rathore, when contacted, declined to go into details, saying only that investigations were under way.
The city has suffered increasingly from violence linked to al Qa'eda extremists. March 3, gunmen ambushed the Sri Lankan cricket team bus in Lahore, killing eight Pakistanis and ending hopes of the country hosting international sport in the immediate future. * AFP