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PAKISTAN: After Red Mosque Raid Gov&#39t Confronts Taliban

Ashfaq Yusufzai and Zofeen Ebrahim

PESHAWAR, Jul 16 2007 (IPS) - Pro-Taliban rebels operating close to the Afghan border have, through a series of suicide bomber attacks on security forces over the weekend causing some 80 deaths, signalled the end of a peace deal with the government and determination to avenge the Jul. 10-11 army raid on the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad.

Anticipating a backlash in the restive North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the military government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf rushed in troops, soon after seizing control over the Lal Masjid complex. But pro-Taliban groups, already negotiating troop withdrawal in the area, were angered and responded by unleashing suicide bombers on convoys and security installations.

‘’The peace agreement has been terminated,’’ said Abdullah Farhad to reporters in this town which is capital of the NWFP and the main gateway to Afghanistan.

Government officials confirmed that on Sunday at least 44 people were killed in suicide bomber attacks. An army convoy was hit as it moved through Swat district, killing 18, while an attack on a police recruitment centre carried out by a human bomb resulted in 26 deaths.

On Saturday, at least 26 soldiers were killed in a suicide car bombing in north Waziristan. Pamphlets circulated by the Taliban in Miranshah town announced the end of the 10-month-old peace pact. "We had signed the agreement for the safety and protection of the lives and property of our people," the statement said. "But the government forces continued to launch attacks on the Taliban and have killed a number of people."

Under the Sep. 5, 2006 pact the Pakistan army, which had been battling with the Taliban and al-Qaeda elements, as part of an understanding with the U.S. army in Afghanistan, was pulled back. In return, the militants agreed to halt cross-border attacks on the U.S. and NATO troops that are backing the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But neither side was satisfied with the implementation of the deal and negotiations were underway for the army to withdraw from 25 of its checkpoints even as the Lal Masjid was stormed.

The weekend attacks on the security forces followed a call by the firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlullah for a ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the government for the storming of the Lal Masjid which resulted in a bloodbath in which more than 100 people including children died.

Defending the army action on the Lal Masjid and its affiliated seminary for women, Jamia Hafsa, to flush out ‘high value terrorists’ and restore the state’s authority against a bid by two maverick cleric brothers to enforce the Shariah (Islamic law), Musharraf said the war on terror was far from over.

The younger of the two clerics, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, died in the raid after telling television interviewers that the Musharraf government was acting at the behest of the U.S by laying siege to the Lal Masjid complex.

On Thursday, after the siege ended, the general addressed the nation and stressed that no seminary or mosque would ever be allowed to be converted into fortresses in the manner that the Lal Masjid’s clerics had done.

With links established between the Lal Masjid administration and the radical elements in the NWFP, Musharraf also announced a strengthening of the law enforcement agencies through numbers, equipment and a special six-month training with back-up support from the army.

"He has set the tone for the future and if the stance can be sustained then there is some future for us in this fight against terror,’’ Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based political and defence analyst told IPS.

Elaborating on the government’s strategy to root out militancy and religious extremism in the NWFP Musharraf said: "We have already provided tanks to some agencies and will further equip them with modern weapons to take on fanatics and militants."

Reacting to the weekend attacks, Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Sherpao warned that the government would now take action. ‘’We have been insisting that they (tribal leaders and militants) are not enforcing the agreement strictly… now the government will be justified if it takes some action."

"Musharraf’s government is on its weakest wicket in terms of religious moral authority. When emotional religious issues are involved, you need higher moral and religious authority, not just legally correct military might. With zero religious credentials, the government should have shown restraint," says defence analyst Zaid Hamid, founding consultant of Brass Tacks -an Islamabad-based think tank.

Of concern to the government is the bad publicity arising from the large number of deaths, including those of women and children that occurred during the raid. "There will be a reaction on government’s attempt to hide the casualty figures when missing persons’ list would sharply increase," predicts Hamid.

‘’There was no cause for the state to understate the numbers,’’ said Sehgal. ‘’The kind of offensive it led, there had to be casualties and people would have accepted it. According to reports garnered from very reliable sources, 104 people were killed.’’

Elevn soldiers also died as fighting broke out between the army and well armed and trained militants who were entrenched inside the mosque.

Hamid believes that Musharraf acted in haste and under pressure from Washington. "I think there was U.S. pressure to mop up the operation as they felt that politicians might have a soft corner for these militants. Bloodshed in election year is never a good idea. Ideally, they should have held the siege and increased pressure as they were doing…their nerves snapped.’’

(* This report was made by IPS reporters Zofeen Ebrahim in Karachi and Ashfaq Yusufzai in Peshawar)

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