WaPo : Pakistan Blast Kills 21, Mostly Troops

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pakistan Blast Kills 21, Mostly Troops

Attack in Tourist Region Of Northwest Spotlights New Front in Insurgency

By Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali | Washington Post Foreign Service | October 26, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct. 25 -- A suspected suicide bomber attacked a Pakistani military convoy on Thursday, killing at least 21 people in a scenic valley that has become another front in the nation's war with Islamic extremists. Most of the dead were Pakistani troops.

The blast in the Swat district set fire to a military truck that was laden with ammunition, according to officials and witnesses. Scores of people, including civilians, were injured.
While battles have been raging for years in the Pakistani tribal areas that line the border with Afghanistan, a relatively recent surge of violence in Swat, to the northeast, illustrates the potential for a widened war that also takes in Pakistan's so-called settled areas. The valley is considered one of the country's most naturally beautiful regions and has long been known as "the Switzerland of Pakistan."

The attack came as the military moved 3,000 security personnel into Swat in a possible prelude to a confrontation with Maulana Fazlullah, the region's firebrand, pro-Taliban cleric.

Fazlullah, who leads the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law, uses an illegal FM radio signal to regularly broadcast calls for Islamic revolution. In recent days, he has taken to the airwaves to warn the government of devastating consequences if the military launches an offensive. Fazlullah is believed to have thousands of black-turbaned followers who are willing to fight to defend him. The group was officially banned in 2003 by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but has continued to operate illegally.

"The aim and objective of the fresh deployment is to bring peace and stability to the Swat region. But whoever offers resistance will be dealt with with an iron hand," warned Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, which includes Swat. "The operation will be aimed at restoring the government's writ to 59 villages of the Swat district where Maulana Fazlullah's men have been patrolling on streets with their guns."

In a recent interview, Fazlullah preached jihad and defended the use of suicide bombings, which have become a favored tactic of insurgents in Pakistan. "Suicide bombing is a message through which the Muslim youth convey that they can use even their bones and flesh as bullets to strike the infidels' skulls," he said.

Fazlullah, rumored to be allied with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, rose to prominence last year when he spoke out against education for girls and women and issued decrees against polio vaccinations, which he derided as a U.S. conspiracy to make men infertile. He has sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam on Swat's residents, calling on barbers not to shave their customers' beards and urging music store owners to shut down. His supporters have publicly set fire to televisions and videocassette recorders, which they blame for spreading obscenity.

The conflict between Fazlullah and the government has been taking its toll on the region, with tourism money drying up this year.

"It used to be the favorite recreation center of tourists, including foreigners," said Shirin Zada, a resident of Swat. "But that's no more the case as nobody can now take the risk of visiting Swat due to the fear of Fazlullah and his Islamic Brigade."

"The situation is very tense," said Mohammed Sher Khan, vice president of the Pakistan People's Party in Swat. "Right now, nobody can try to go out on the roads."

Khan said that government forces appeared to be gearing up for an operation against the insurgents but that he feared what would happen if they did. "The militants control the mountains. If the government tries to do an operation in Swat, it will be very dangerous for them," he said.

The bomb blast in Swat came a week after 140 people died in the southern city of Karachi when two suicide bombers attacked a procession being led by the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who had just returned from eight years of exile.

Police continued Thursday to hunt for the organizers of that attack, although they have announced no significant breakthroughs. Bhutto has asked for international experts to assist Pakistani authorities with the investigation; the government has rejected the idea.

Earlier this week, Bhutto was due to return to her ancestral home of Larkana, on the plains in southern Pakistan, but postponed the trip. Her aides say she now will make the journey Saturday in a visit that is likely to be marked by extraordinarily tight security.

Ali reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.