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Asia-pacific

Taliban steps up offensive against government with suicide attacks

Video by Matthieu MABIN

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-03-14

At least 56 people have been killed in Pakistan since Friday in two separate suicide bomb attacks in the city of Lahore and in the Swat Valley, as part of a renewed Taliban offensive against the government.

REUTERS - A suicide bomber targeting security forces in Pakistan on Saturday killed at least 11 people, police said, part of a renewed Taliban push against the government after one of the biggest security crackdowns in years.

The assault near a security checkpost in Swat Valley, which also wounded 35 people, came a day after a suicide attack on the military killed at least 45 people in the city of Lahore.

“The bomber was in a rickshaw,” said Qazi Ghulam Farooq, Mingora city police chief.

The attack killed two soldiers, three policemen and five civilians, police said. "When I got there, I saw a burning vehicle. At least five people, including some women, who burned to death," a witness said.

The road leading to Mingora’s main courthouse was blocked by concrete blocks, sand bags and barbed wire. The blast left two rickshaws twisted and a car burning. Windows in nearby buildings were shattered.

In April last year, the military launched a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat, and largely cleared Islamist fighters out after months of clashes.

But militants have gone on the offensive again after a relative lull in violence, challenging government assertions that an offensive in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan had dealt a major blow to the al Qaeda-backed Pakistani Taliban.

"In Swat and other parts of tribal areas, they have been defeated comprehensively. But there are what you call individual groups all over the country," said Mehmood Shah, a defence analyst and former security chief in northwest Pakistan, where militants operate from sanctuaries near the Afghan border.

Underscoring the alarm in Pakistan, one front-page newspaper headline read:  "Lahore Under Terror Siege".

US concerns

The latest wave of violence is likely to worry the United States in several ways. For one, it will raise fresh questions about stability in Pakistan.

And Washington may be concerned attacks will force Pakistan to further focus on fighting homegrown Taliban, instead of hunting Afghan militants who cross the border to attack U.S.  troops in Afghanistan, the White House’s main priority as it tries to stabilise the country before a U.S. troop pullout in 2011.

The blast in Mingora, Swat’s main town, was the sixth this week, and will add to pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari during a critical period. The economy is sluggish and foreign investors have been scared away by violence.

The unpopular Zardari also faces calls to hand over his major powers—such as the right to dissolve parliament and choose the army chief—to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

Unlike Zardari, Gilani has not antagonised Pakistan’s all-powerful military. That means he may have the best chance of stabilising Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally with a history of political crises.

Nawaz Sharif, seen as Pakistan’s most popular politician, has again accused Zardari of being the biggest threat to democracy in the country, local newspaper The News reported on Saturday.

It said Sharif told a group of Pakistanis in London that Zardari must change his ways and that he was under pressure from all sides.

Amid this political turmoil, the attack on Saturday is likely to re-focus attention on security in Swat, a former tourist valley 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Islamabad,

On February 22, a suspected suicide bomber killed six people in an attack on a security forces convoy in a market in Mingora, police said.

Last year’s assault on Swat came after Pakistani militants flocked there to support a Muslim cleric trying to impose Taliban-style rule.

Date created : 2010-03-13

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