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Attacks highlight Pakistan's vulnerability to militants

The country is being hit with blasts heavy on symbolism and death as its military prepares an offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan. One attack shows collaboration with Punjabi factions.

October 13, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN — Dressed in camouflage and armed with automatic rifles, grenades, mines and suicide vests, the 10 militants who shot their way into Pakistan's army headquarters were driven by a chilling goal: seize senior military officers as hostages and demand the release of more than 100 prisoners held by the government.

But nearly a day after the attack began, Pakistani commandos killed one militant before he could blow himself up in a room packed with 22 hostages, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday. Within 45 minutes, the attack's Punjabi leader had been captured. The other militants were dead.

Although the militants failed to achieve their objective, the daring siege Saturday on one of the most heavily guarded military compounds in nuclear-armed Pakistan revealed the government's vulnerability to militant cells as it prepares to launch an offensive to crush the Taliban in South Waziristan.

The Taliban's new leader, Hakimullah Mahsud, has proved to be just as dangerous as his predecessor, Baitullah Mahsud, the mastermind of much of the terrorist violence that plagued Pakistan for years before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike Aug. 5.

Responding to the planned offensive against their stronghold on the Afghan border, Mahsud's forces have unleashed a string of devastating attacks in the last eight days in an attempt to use symbolism and force to shake the nation.

The latest occurred Monday, when a teenage suicide attacker detonated a bomb in a crowded market in the town of Alpuri, just outside the volatile Swat Valley region that was the site of a major government offensive against Taliban militants this year. The explosion killed 41 people and wounded 45 others, authorities said, wreaking havoc in a place that had been declared safe once again by the government.

But the most alarming was the siege on the Pakistani army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, in part because it revealed the increasingly close collaboration between Pashtun Taliban fighters from the largely tribal areas along the Afghan border and militants from Pakistan's Punjab province, the country's heartland.

Though the siege was believed to have been ordered and masterminded by Taliban leaders who trained the group in South Waziristan, the crew was led by a Punjabi extremist named Aqeel, Abbas said. Commandos captured Aqeel in the final stages of the raid, after he detonated explosives, injuring himself and several commandos.

The Taliban on Monday confirmed that its Punjab faction carried out the attack. Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told the Associated Press that the group was seeking vengeance for Baitullah Mahsud's death.

Collaboration between Taliban and Punjab fighters suggests that when the military makes its long-planned push into Waziristan, it may face a separate threat in the heartland from Punjab militant groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The groups, based in a province that includes densely populated cities such as Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Lahore, have primarily focused their attacks on Indian targets.

Abbas acknowledged that Aqeel is a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and is believed to have masterminded a commando-style attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March that killed eight people.

Aqeel belonged to the army's medical corps until 2004, when he deserted and joined the militant group, Abbas said.

The assault on the main military headquarters, just outside the capital, took place one day after a suicide car bombing killed 53 people and wounded more than 100 in a crowded bazaar in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Last week, a lone militant dressed as a paramilitary police officer walked into the lobby of the United Nations' World Food Program office in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and detonated a bomb that killed five aid agency employees.

Saturday's attack was carefully planned and the boldest yet against the country's military, a venerated symbol of strength and pride in Pakistani society.

The militants used Pakistani army uniforms and a van with fake military plates to throw off soldiers at the compound's main entrance. Despite the facility's fortifications and checkpoints, militants were able to take explosives-laden vests, grenades and even land mines into one of the buildings, where they held their hostages.

The late-morning assault on the compound began when the militants drove up to the main entrance and engaged in a firefight with guards.

Five militants and six security officers were killed, Abbas said.

Aqeel and the other four remaining militants broke into a security building on the compound, where they took 42 security personnel, officers and civilian workers hostage.

In the early moments of the siege, Abbas said, the military intercepted a transmission between a top Taliban leader, Wali-ur Rehman, and militants that indicated the attack had been planned in South Waziristan.

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