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KARACHI, Mar 31 2009 (IPS) - The brazen armed attack on a police academy near Lahore on Monday underlines the danger that the Pakistani state faces from militancy linked to the ‘war on terror’, but with historic roots in the earlier Afghan war of liberation from Soviet occupation, or ‘jihad’ against ‘God-less communists’.
The incident is also part of a chain of such attacks that highlight the need for out-of-the-box thinking to a regional, political approach and regional cooperation in this global, border-less conflict.
Eyewitnesses to Monday’s drama said that the gunmen scaled the six-foot high boundary walls of the academy soon after 7 am. They lobbed hand grenades at the 700 or so recruits on parade and ran at them, firing automatic weapons.
Police and paramilitary troops fired aerial bursts in jubilation and shouted ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ (God is great) after they re-gained control of the Academy premises a tense eight hours later.
The final death toll was far lower than the 28 or so initially reported by television channels: eight policemen, one civilian, and four militants who blew themselves up with suicide vests.
The role of the electronic media while covering such incidents has come in for much criticism. In their rush to be first with the news, channels often provide incorrect information – or “lies”, as a press photographer who was at the scene of the Mar 30 drama put it more bluntly.
The al- Qaeda-linked Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, based in Waziristan Agency in Pakistan’s north-west tribal areas, claimed responsibility for the latest attack, the second this month in Lahore, capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province.
On Mar. 3, some dozen gunmen ambushed the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in uptown Lahore, injuring several cricketers and killing six policemen and a driver. The gunmen disappeared after the shooting spree and have yet to be apprehended.
On Mar. 27 a suicide bomber killed dozens of worshippers at a crowded mosque near the north-western town of Jamrud on the highway to Afghanistan. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the motive may have been related to money as criminal elements operate freely in the area.
However, the Lahore attacks, taking place in an urban metropolis with dozens of television channels, were far more spectacular and effective, as Asha’ar Rehman, Resident Editor of daily Dawn in Lahore commented.
“A suicide bombing, in the eye of the terrorist perhaps, is too fleeting a moment in the life of a people who have become so used to the occurrence,” said Rehman.
“It is obvious that the terrorist is looking for more than momentary fame. He now wants to stretch the harrowing experience for as long as he possibly can, to the chagrin of onlookers who cannot keep their eyes off the television.”
The attack on the three-storey police school on the outskirts of Lahore a few kilometres from the Wagah checkpoint on Pakistan’s eastern border with India also bore other similarities with the ambush on the cricketers.
Underlining huge security lapses and intelligence failures, both took place in the early morning hours, with well-equipped, well-trained militants attacking supposedly well-protected targets. The Sri Lankan cricketers should have been extended presidential level security while the police school was peopled with – well, policemen, under training though they were.
Their commonalities include the possibility of local support that must have existed in order to facilitate them.
Both attacks drew comparisons to the Nov 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Some commentators accused India of being behind them in retaliation for the Pakistani link that emerged in the Mumbai tragedy.
The Mumbai attacks were in turn compared with the suicide attack on Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on Sept 20, 2008. The attack was heavily symbolic given its high-security status and proximity to the corridors of power.
Earlier, militants had eliminated a much more symbolic and high value target – former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as she left an election rally in Rawalpindi on Dec 27, 2007.
Other high-profile attacks, in the recent past, include the suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in Peshawar that kills 35 and injured about 80 people last September.
In August 2008 twin suicide bombings at the gates of a weapons factory in the town of Wah near Islamabad left 67 dead. Earlier in March 2008, suicide bombers targeted a police headquarters in Lahore, leaving some 24 dead.
But Monday’s attack was so far “the biggest and potentially the most dangerous attack on a state facility in Pakistan,” noted Asha’ar Rehman.
“There were hundreds of trainee policemen inside the compound – trainees among a police force that, according to adviser on interior Rehman Malik, lacks basic training to combat terrorism. They were ill-equipped to stop the advance of a handful of visibly skilled gunmen. It could have been far worse.”
The drama ended with an unexpected twist, again a throwback to Mumbai, when security forces captured some militants alive.
One of them, a bearded man with an expressionless face, was nabbed while heading towards the helipad in the fields behind the Police Academy. He was carrying hand-grenades apparently to attack the helicopters with.
News photographer Rahat Dar told IPS that he was perched along with other media persons on the rooftop of a nearby building watching events unfold at the academy in front of them. “We turned around towards the back when we heard shouts of ‘Got him, got him!'” he said.
Security personnel yanked off the man’s shalwar, baggy trousers to ensure that he was not armed. They also beat him up, prompting Islamabad-based journalist Mariana Baabar to question whether police are actually trained to capture a live terrorist.
“It was the Punjab police in action – doing what comes to them naturally. Obviously, they cannot differentiate between a rare live person who could give them tons of information and an ordinary criminal,” she wrote in a front page comment in daily The News. “Nothing amazing or new except that this was a rare chance to see it live on our screen”.
Police repeatedly kicked the man, apparently having “decided that they would keep kicking him with their boots till he was no more…,” wrote Baabar. “It took an army guy… to stop the angry and out of control police from this brutal kicking. At least someone realised that it was essential to get this suspect alive.”
Identified as an Afghan named Hijratullah, the encircled man presented a pathetic sight as he struggled to cover himself with his shirt.
The other three suspected militants in custody have not yet been identified. They were captured when trying to escape from the premises wearing police uniforms.
Political analysts have long been warning that there are no easy military solutions to the ‘war on terror’. The al- Qaeda and Taliban now appear to have converged with Pakistan’s ‘home-grown’ militancy that American and Saudi dollars cultivated during the Afghan war against Soviet occupation.
Analysts hope that the interactions between global leaders at the high-powered meetings in Europe this week will help initiate a change in the global approach to these issues.
The U.N.-backed conference at the Hague on Mar. 31 to discuss the future of Afghanistan, participated in by about 80 countries including Iran and the United States, is expected to also discuss a regional approach to the issue, says Marjan Lucas of the Dutch Peace Organisation (IKV).
“It is important that America understands what they’ve done to the region and develop partners with civil society and elected representatives rather than the army as they have been doing,” she told IPS in Karachi, having arrived from Lahore the day before the police academy was attacked.
The Hague conference will be followed by the G20 and NATO Summits where U.S. President Barrack Obama is expected to hold bilateral meetings with several world leaders.
What is certain is that there are no easy answers, and that there are likely to be more such links in the terrorist chain before things get any better.
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