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    South Asia
     Mar 4, 2009
'Cricket' attack marks a shift in Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistan might recently have signed peace deals with miltants in its tribal areas, including with vehment anti-establishment Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, but miltants on Tuesday staged a brazen attack in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province and the second-largest city in the country.

The attack by 12 heavily armed gunmen on a convoy escorted by police transporting Sri Lankan cricketers to a match against Pakistan has set off alarm bells in the capital Islamabad that miltants are now taking their battle into major urban centers.

At least five people died and six of the cricketers were injured in a 25-minute battle in which militants wearing backpacks and

 

carrying AK-47s, rockets and grenades fought police. The assailants then all fled. The Sri Lankan cricketers have called off their tour and are heading home immediately.

The attack bore some similarity to that of 10 well-armed gunmen, also with backpacks, who rampaged through Mumbai in India last November, killing 140 people. They were later found to have connections to the banned Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"This was a planned terrorist attack. They had heavy weapons," Salman Taseer, who heads the provincial government as governor of Punjab, was reported as saying. "These were the same methods and the same sort of people as hit Mumbai."

Numerous Pakistani analysts have been quick to point a finger at India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for staging what they say is a tit-for-tat attack on Tuesday, although there is been no official announcement in this connection.

A press attache at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Islamabad thought it highly unlikely that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who a waging a bloody separatist war in Sri Lanka, had anything to do with Tuesday's events.

Rather, judging by what was shown on Pakistani television, the attack is the hallmark of those that were waged by militants (many of them Punjabi) against Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir up until a few years ago. They were trained by the Indian cell of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

In 2005-06, these militants joined forces with the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan resistance after Pakistan closed down their training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a move that changed the dynamics of the war theater in the region.

Beside the Mumbai attack, Tuesday's assault was similar to the storming of the Serena Hotel in the Afghan capital of Kabul in January 2008 and the unsuccessful July 2008 attack on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. In all of these incidents, the attackers abandoned their weapons and quickly melted into a thickly populated area of the city where, apparently, they were whisked away by waiting colleagues.

Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Nawaz, a former interim minister the Interior and a close aide of former president General Pervez Musharraf, commented to Asia Times Online, "This proves that striking peace deals [with militants] will not serve any purpose and there is a need to handle them with iron hands. I blame the government for negligence.

"Providing a single elite police commondo bus was not enough. They should have been provided VIP [very important people] security like the state provides for governors and chief ministers. Traffic should have been blocked on their route," Nawaz said.

Former Pakistani cricketer Zaheer Abbas said, "I am not a politician to comment on who was behind it, but it has damaged Pakistani cricket very badly. I don't understand why anybody would target Sri Lankans because they don't have any role in the region. There might be some forces who want to damage the cause of Pakistan and Pakistani cricket."

Possible attackers
Pakistani analysts, including retired General Hamid Gul, who is a former head of the ISI, blame India's RAW.

However, there is no precedence for RAW having the capability to carry out such attacks in Pakistan. Its operations in Pakistan have been of two kinds, according to the records of Pakistani security agencies, documented in files and books narrated by their retired officials:
  • Small bomb blasts in urban centers.
  • The use of Indophile political parties such as the Awami League in 1970, the Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party, the Baloch separatist group the Baloch Libration Army and the Muttehida Quami Movement.

    However, these parties were always used in a limited political context. For creating a law-and-order situation in the country, RAW has always used bomb blasts and other small-level sabotage activities. It has never had the capacity, like the ISI had in India, to use armed groups to carry out guerrilla activities in Pakistan.

    More pertinent is to view Tuesday's attack in the context of the peace deals in the Swat Valley and the tribal areas which have stopped the fighting between ethnic Pashtun-dominated militants and the Pakistani army.

    Prior to the signing of the deals, the matter of the release of militants who did not belong to the Swat area was raised, that is, non-Pashtun militants. These included Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was apprehended while trying to flee the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007.

    However, after deciding on the level of compensation packages for the families of militants killed or injured by the security forces and other matters related to Swat and the tribal areas, the matter of non-Pashtun militants was deferred and the peace agreements were signed.

    In effect, non-Pashtun militants have been ignored and the attack in Lahore could be a bloody message to the government that the "Punjabi militants" have the capacity to cripple urban centers at any time and place of their choosing.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

    (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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