Militants bring war to heart of Pakistan

By Nadeem Sarwar, DPA,

Islamabad : Pakistan’s historic eastern city of Lahore has long been known as the country’s cultural capital, with dozens of theatres, film studios, fashion houses, historical sites and exotic food.

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But it is now being turned into a new battleground by Islamic militants who have already gained control over large areas in the northwestern regions of the nuclear-armed Islamic state.

Nearly four weeks after the Sri Lankan national cricket team narrowly survived an attack in the city centre, around a dozen assailants raided a police training centre on the outskirts of Lahore shortly after sunrise Monday.

Hundreds of military commandos, paramilitary soldiers and policemen took eight hours to overpower a handful of well-trained and well-equipped attackers, some of whom blew themselves up after killing and injuring dozens of police recruits and their instructors in the suburb of Manawan, a few kilometres from the Indian border.

A few of the terrorists even managed to flee the scene in a stolen vehicle and were still at large.

“Lahore is the heart of Pakistan. It is the capital of Punjab province where more than half of Pakistan’s 160 population lives. It is also the most prosperous area of the country. An attack on and around this city is an attack on the entire country,” said Lahore-based security analyst Hassan Askari.

Militants linked with the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the formerly Afghan-based Islamist Taliban have pushed law enforcement personnel on the back foot in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and its adjoining tribal region, but they are now expanding the area of conflict to the centre of the country, he added.

“We can clearly see how bloody this war is going to be in the coming days,” said a retired general and analyst Talat Masood.

Giving in to the severe resistance offered by the militants, the government signed a peace deal with the rebels last month, allowing them to control restive Swat valley and seven surrounding districts in NWFP and enforce Taliban-style Islamic rule there.

But the peace deal encouraged the militants in other areas.

With the exception of some suicide attacks here and there, a relative calm has prevailed in Punjab since 2001 when the government of former president Pervez Musharraf joined the US-led “war on terrorism” after international forces invaded Afghanistan.

But recently the Punjab’s militant outfits, especially Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have joined the Taliban’s wider campaign against Pakistan’s security forces.

Most of these terrorists – locally dubbed Kashmiri mujahidin – come from the southern Punjab, an impoverished and poverty-ridden area.

Pakistan’s top security official Rehman Malik said this region was “full” of thousands of trained militants. Elements trained by 28 outlawed militant organisations operating in the country were multiplying day by day, he added.

They seem to have been angry at the country’s law enforcement agencies since the government launched a major crackdown on militants and arrested some of their top leaders following the Nov 26 terrorist attacks on Indian financial hub, Mumbai, where more than 170 people died and over 300 were injured.

Pakistan singled out the LeT as the planner of the Mumbai carnage.

The fighters from the Punjab militant groups are believed to be tougher fighters than those with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, because they have allegedly been trained by Pakistan’s premier military Inter Services Intelligence agency to fight more than half a million Indian troops deployed in the disputed India-controlled Himalayan region of Kashmir.

“They feel deserted and, therefore, they are now turning on us,” said an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a very dangerous situation; we know how deadly they are.”

The security personnel in Lahore fired their weapons in jubilation and shouted “God is Great” after regaining the control of the sprawling police school complex, but it could hardly hide their lack of capacity to fight the tough militants threatening the country.

“It seems the terrorists have the initiative. They can carry out an attack when and wherever they want,” said Askari. “They want to demoralize the police because it is the first line of defence against terrorism.”

This might disappoint US President Barack Obama, who largely pinned his hopes on Pakistani security forces fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban militants as he outlined his new strategy against Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Former interior minister retired lieutenant general Hamid Nawaz said Western countries should provide more financial assistance to the country so that it could provide sophisticated training as well as weapons for its security forces.

“Militants have widened the scope of conflict, and Pakistan lacks the resources to deal with them,” he said.