Taliban Bomber Kills 2 Troops In Pakistani Kashmir

26 June 2009
Associated Press


Islamabad: The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack Friday on security forces in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, calling it a sign that recent military strikes targeting the group's top leader have not hampered his ability to hit back. It was the first time the intensifying conflict between Pakistani forces and the Taliban has reached Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan enclave that has long been a flashpoint for violence between Pakistan and arch-rival India. The assault was meant to show that the Taliban could strike wherever it wishes in Pakistan, a spokesman for the militants said, indicating they were likely not trying to stoke tensions between the nuclear armed adversaries. But hitting security forces in such a strategically and politically sensitive region as Kashmir may be an attempt to distract the military as it prepares for a major operation against Pakistani leader Baitullah Mehsud in his stronghold along the Afghan border. Islamic militant groups have operated in the divided territory of Kashmir for years, often with clandestine support from elements of Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, analysts say. But New Dehli's rule over the Indian portion of the region has been the target of previous attacks. Early Friday, a suicide bomber approached an army vehicle in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, and detonated his explosives, killing two soldiers and wounding 3 others, the army said in a statement. Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of the Taliban leader, told The Associated Press that Friday's assault was launched to prove that Mehsud was still a force to be reckoned with despite two major military campaigns against the Taliban in Pakistan's volatile northwest. 'We are in a position to respond to the army's attacks, and time will prove that these military operations have not weakened us,' Hakimullah Mehsud told the AP by telephone from an undisclosed location. Mehsud is blamed for a series of suicide attacks across the country on targets including police and intelligence agency buildings, mosques, markets and an international hotel that have killed more than 100 people since late May. Mehsud's group has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks and warned of more. It says they are to avenge the military's two-month-old campaign to oust the Taliban from the northeastern Swat Valley and to respond to a second operation against him that is heating up on his home turf of South Waziristan. The military has said the recent militant attacks are an attempt to distract government forces from their operations in Swat and South Waziristan. President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday repeated that the government would not step back from hunting the Taliban, warning the group's members 'to give up militancy and submit to state authority or be prepared for physical extermination,' the state-run news agency reported. Washington strongly supports the operations against the militants, seeing them as a measure of nuclear-armed Pakistan's resolve to tame a growing insurgency after years of unfinished military campaigns and failed peace deals. Mehsud is believed to be linked with al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban leaders who may be hiding in the rugged, lawless tribal belt on the Pakistan-Afghan border, and defeating him may help the war in Afghanistan because the area has been used as a springboard for cross-border attacks on U.S. and other troops. Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst, said Mehsud likely struck in Kashmir 'to make it more difficult for the military in South Waziristan by spreading out the conflict.' Ishtiaq Ahmad, an expert on terrorism and regional security at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said the Kashmir attack was the latest move in what has emerged as a showdown between Mehsud and the military. 'In the past two months, each side has been raising the stakes,' Ahmad said. 'Battles lines are increasingly being drawn now, and the physical extermination of the enemy has been clearly outlined.' For 20 years, India has accused Pakistan of harboring Islamic militants in Kashmir and helping them sneak across the boundary into its part of Kashmir to launch attacks on Indian security forces. Pakistan denies the allegations. Pakistani armed forces have been bombing and shelling militant targets in South Waziristan for almost two weeks and says it is preparing for an operation to rout Mehsud. In the government's latest attack, warplanes bombed two militant targets in the villages of Ladha and Makeen — Mehsud's hometown — killing 10 people and wounding 15, two intelligence officials told the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Hakimullah Mehsud said no militants were killed, 'just one elderly innocent citizen.' Baitullah Mehsud has also been the target of suspected U.S. missile attacks. Earlier this week, he narrowly escaped a drone strike in his hometown in Makeen South Waziristan that officials said killed 80 people. Eliminating Mehsud and his estimated 12,000 loyal fighters will be no easy task for Pakistan's military, which has been humbled by the Taliban leader in the past. And any ground operation, is expected to be a much tougher fight than the one in Swat.