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18 soldiers killed in suicide attack in NWFP

Nirupama Subramanian

Unrest has been most severe in the north-west and the Government has moved thousands of troops to the region

— PHOTO: AFP

SPREADING TERROR: Police recover explosive material from a burnt-out car in Peshawar on Saturday. Police defused the bomb after the car caught fire. No one was injured in the incident.

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has erupted in a spate of suicide attacks and bombings targeting the military and the Government in the days after a security forces blockade of the capital’s Lal Masjid culminated in a commando strike to clear out militants holed up inside.

In the deadliest attack so far, a suicide-bomber drove an explosives-packed vehicle into a military convoy in North Waziristan tribal agency near Miranshah on Saturday, killing 18 soldiers and wounding several others, the Pakistan military said.

The attack came a day after local militants warned they would break off from a September 2006 peace accord with the Government if troops redeployed at roadside checkpoints, dismantled under the agreement, were not withdrawn by July 15.

In a separate attack at Bannu in the NWFP, three soldiers were wounded when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

Outside the north-west, the main theatre of militancy in Pakistan, popular reaction against the Lal Masjid operation has been muted. The six-party religious coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), and a national federation of seminaries, Wafaqul Madaris al Arabiya, organised protests on Friday, but they did not draw the expected response.

Nonetheless, the MMA has decided to take up the issue in a big way. On Saturday, coalition president Qazi Hussain Ahmed, who leads the Jamat-i-Islami, declared that he would resign from the National Assembly, and this may spur the anti-Musharraf protests on the Lal Masjid.

For now, the unrest has been most severe in the north-west and the Government has moved thousands of troops into sensitive parts of the NWFP as speculation mounted that following President Pervez Musharraf’s pledge earlier this week to root out militancy, the military was preparing to launch operations in the area.

In all, at least 52 people, most of them security forces personnel, have been killed in seven incidents in different parts of the region since July 3, when the trouble began at the Lal Masjid.

Troop were deployed on Friday in Swat, Battagram and Dir in northern NWFP, and in Tank, Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan in the southern parts of the province but officials have denied that operations are imminent, saying the deployment was to maintain the security of the region.

On Friday, police said they arrested three suspected militants in Dera Ismail Khan, seizing from them an explosives-laden car, suicide jackets and other arms and ammunition.

Battagram and Swat have been in the grip of extreme tension for the last week. On Thursday, a protest against the Lal Masjid action in Battagram turned violent with protesters smashing and looting offices of international aid organisations.

The same day, in Swat, known as the Switzerland of Pakistan but also home to the pro-Taliban Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, a military convoy escaped a bomb attack, but a suicide-bomber killed six persons, including three policemen, and three passers-by.

To add to the Government’s worries, Taliban militants in Bajaur tribal agency have announced the imposition of Sharia.

Shops, banks and other businesses in Khar, the main town in the agency, remained closed on Friday in response to a call from the militants to observe the day as weekly holiday.

Some 40 armed militants paraded a group of drug peddlers in a bazaar, and asked people to be prepared for jihad, Dawn newspaper reported. They asked people to spurn “anti-Islamic” activities such as drinking alcohol and listening to music. They also destroyed CDs and cassettes.

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