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    South Asia
     Mar 5, 2009
Pakistan's militants ready for more
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Tuesday's attack in the Pakistani city of Lahore on a convoy carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was carried out by disgruntled Punjabi militants seeking to extract concessions from the government, Asia Times Online has learned.

And the 12 highly trained gunmen who fled the scene after killing six police officers and wounding six of the cricketers had planned to take the sportsmen hostage, not kill them, high-level sources maintain.

The militants, working directly under the command of a joint Punjabi and Kashmiri leadership based in the North Waziristan tribal area and allied with al-Qaeda, planned the Lahore operation. The object was to hold the cricketers ransom in exchange for

 

jailed militants and the safe passage of their colleagues to North Waziristan.

A spokesperson at the Sri Lankan Embassy at Islamabad also said on Tuesday that he did not believe the Sri Lankan players were meant to be killed as all fire was aimed at the police protecting the players.

The gunmen's plan to take hostages was foiled by the fierce resistance put up by the elite commandos of the Punjab police in the escorting convoy. They stood their ground and were quick to return fire. An assistant superintendent of police in the bus carrying the cricketers was smart enough to immediately urge the driver to speed to safety inside the Gaddafi Stadium where the Sri Lankans were due to resume their five-day Test match against Pakistan. The Sri Lankan team later presented the driver with their playing shirts as a sign of gratitude.

Items recovered from the scene of the attack just a few hundred meters from the stadium included bags containing AK-47s, light machine guns, hand grenades, small rocket launchers, plastic bombs and wireless sets.

Inspector General Khawaja Khalid Farooq of the Punjab police said the militants were carrying sufficient weaponry to fight for many hours. They also had plentiful supplies of food, such as almonds and mineral water.

Video footage of the incident shows the gunmen as extremely composed and well trained and dressed in urban attire, including running shoes - nothing like the rustic mountain-dwelling Taliban fighters who invariably wear traditional clothing such as turbans, long robes and sandals. They also appeared to be in excellent physical condition.

All indications are that the militants are "good sons of the soil" trained by Pakistan's premier secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence's India cell to fight against the Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir. The ISI shut its Kashmir operations a few years ago and many militants joined forces with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Indeed, the appearance and modus operandi of the gunmen resembles that of the 10 gunmen who attacked Mumbai in India last November in a two-day rampage of violence that led to the deaths of 180 people, including all but once of the militants. Investigations showed that the men were linked to the banned Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has deep roots in the Kashmir struggle.

These "Kashmir" militants are mostly non-Pashtun (unlike the Taliban), with the majority being ethnic Punjabis.

Troubles in the mountains
The attack on Tuesday is most likely related to events in the Swat Valley, where the government last month signed a peace treaty with militants after several years of fighting. The accord also allowed for the implementation of sharia law in the area.

Before the Swat agreement was inked, the Pakistani Taliban presented their demands. These included a financial package worth 480 million rupees (US$6 million) for compensation for families that had lost members through death or injury or which had lost property as a result of the operations of the security forces. They also demanded the release of prisoners.

The government accepted all of the demands, but it refused to release those prisoners who were not from Swat. At the top of this list was Maulana Abdul Aziz, a radical cleric from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad who was arrested in July 2007 while fleeing from the mosque after security forces stormed it. The government also refused to release several other militants, including a very important person, who were recently arrested in Islamabad.

The Punjabi militants were clearly upset at having their demands rejected, while the Pashtuns got what they wanted. The attack in Lahore was meant to redress the "injustice".

Ironically, the peace agreement in Swat is itself now at risk.

On Sunday, militants violated the agreement by detaining a few paramilitary Frontier Corps personnel who were later released. The next day they attacked a military convoy and killed a soldier.

In response, the army on Tuesday arrested a few important Taliban commanders in the Swat Valley. Maulana Sufi Mohammand, the main driver behind the peace agreement, then appealed at a press conference to both the Taliban and the security forces to abide by the agreement. Otherwise, he said, he would no longer stand as a guarantor of the deal.

A new phase of militancy
At the time of the United-States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistani and Taliban groups linked to al-Qaeda had little ability to execute planned and coordinated attacks. At best, they could carry out sectarian assassinations against Shi'ites or plant bombs at religious congregations.

All this changed from 2003 onwards when Arabs and Pakistani militants started regrouping in the South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. (See The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.)

The attack by the jihadi group Jundullah in 2004 on the then-corps commander Karachi's motorcade could be termed as the militants' first well-planned operation. Although the attack was unsuccessful, the militants opened coordinated fire from several directions and had an exit strategy in place. The only blunder was that a cell phone was dropped at the site, which led to the arrest and destruction of the whole network.

About this time, the militant training camps were closed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as Islamabad re-orientated as a partner in the US's "war on terror". Several respected commanders, such as Maulana Ilyas Kashmiri and Abdul Jabbar, were arrested, causing much humiliation among the country's former "heroes". At this point, several top fighters joined the Afghan resistance in the Waziristan tribal areas.

These highly trained militants, courtesy of the Pakistani state, brought with them considerable expertise and muscle and they began training local youths. Some of their most successful operations were the attacks on the Kabul Serena Hotel in January 2008 and on a national parade in Kabul in July 2008. A hallmark of these militants is that they are well versed in modern warfare and that they are ruthless in achieving their goals, even at the expense of innocent civilians.

Their attack in Lahore on Tuesday is testimony to this; they are now prepared to take the war theater to urban centers to get their comrades released, and anybody is fair game - from cricketers to high-profile personalities including ministers, diplomats, politicians and other influential people.

The emergence of these new zealots is an ominous development for a country already mired in militancy in its border areas. And things could get a lot worse as Asia Times Online has learned that Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani has returned from a visit to Washington committed to a much more pro-active approach against militants.

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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