Thousands of troops were deployed to north-west Pakistan to try dissuading outlawed Islamic militants from launching a holy war against the government for its bloody attack on a radical mosque, officials said today.
As the troop movement proceeded in at least five areas of the North West Frontier Province, a suicide bomber struck in another border region, his explosives-laden vehicle killing at least eight soldiers in a military convoy, said army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad.
Security officials said up to 12 soldiers died and 20 more were wounded in the attack.
Elsewhere in the north-west, suspected militants detonated a bomb that struck a vehicle carrying soldiers in the town of Bannu, wounding two, said area police official Mohammed Khan.
Two rockets were also fired at a military checkpoint. No casualties were reported.
In the north-west’s largest city, Peshawar, two 11-pound anti-tank mines attached to a timing device and battery were found in a car.
“It was a timely foiled terrorist attempt which could have caused disaster in the crowded area,” said Police Chief Abdul Majeed Marwat.
The car was parked in front of military-affiliated Askari Bank when a small explosion and fire in the vehicle alerted authorities. Police speculated a misconnection in the timing device occurred.
The region along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan has seen increased activity by both local militants, the Taliban, and – according to a recent US assessment - al-Qaida.
“With help from local tribal elders, we are trying to ensure that militants lay down their arms and stop issuing calls for jihad against the government,” a senior military official said.
He said there were no immediate plans for combat operations against radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who has pressed for Taliban-style rule in Pakistan - much like the leaders of the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad.
Pakistan troops overran the mosque on Wednesday, after an eight-day siege with a hard-line cleric and his militant supporters left more than 100 dead.
Fazlullah, who has close links to the outlawed Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, told supporters to prepare for jihad, or holy war, against President General Pervez Musharaff for the assault, the official said.
The Dawn newspaper quoted Interior Ministry secretary Syed Kamal Shah as saying women and children may have been among the 75 killed in the raid.
Earlier the government said the only casualties were among defending militants and attacking troops.
After nearly two weeks of tension and violence, life was returning to normal in Islamabad as authorities lifted a curfew on areas near the Red Mosque.
Anti-Musharraf protests erupted across Pakistan on Friday. One of the largest was in the eastern city of Lahore, where some 10,000 offered prayers for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a radical cleric killed at the mosque.
In the north-west, an army brigade was heading up the Swat Valley, 75 miles north-east of Peshawar, where a suicide car bomber killed three policeman at a checkpoint on Thursday, said Mohammed Javed, the valley’s top administrator.
With today’s suicide attack in North Waziristan, at least 43 people have been killed in bombings and shootings in the north since the Red Mosque crisis began on July 3.
Asif Iqbal Daudzai, spokesman for the provincial government, said Fazlullah had broken an agreement to stop using FM radio broadcasts for anti-government agitation. If he does so again, security forces “will react,” Daudzai told Dawn News television.
Troops were also sent to Dera Ismail Khan, a town near the tribally governed Waziristan border region, a Taliban stronghold where Washington says al-Qaida is regrouping.
Arshad said today’s suicide attack occurred along a road near Daznaray, a village about 30 miles north of North Waziristan’s main town, Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan.
Two local security officials said the attack killed 12 soldiers, with another 20 troops wounded.