New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - In what is seen in the region as likely retaliation for the recent storming of an Islamist-held mosque in Islamabad, a series of suicide bombings in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province at the week killed at least 45 people, mostly security personnel.
Two suicide bombers detonated charges in the Minamshah and Swat areas, killing 25, including 11 army personnel. A third bomber targeted a police recruitment drive, killing 20.
The deaths bring to more than 65 the number of people killed in bombings and shootings in the restive province since the July 3 escalation of the months-long Red Mosque crisis.
Radicals linked to the fundamentalist Taliban group that formerly ruled most of neighboring Afghanistan turned the mosque into an armed fortress and allegedly held hostages, including women and children, until Special Forces raided the premises last week, ending the standoff.
More than 100 people, including 10 soldiers, reportedly died in the operation.
Pakistan's PTV network said the weekend attacks appeared to be the handiwork of pro-Taliban extremists. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the bombings were linked to the Red Mosque operation.
Earlier Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of the al Qaeda terror network which is allied to the Taliban, issued an appeal posted on the Internet urging Muslims to avenge the storming of the mosque.
The weekend mayhem coincided with the emergence of a previously unseen video in which fugitive al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden praised "martyrdom."
The Red Mosque and its associated religious schools (madrassas) had been a hotbed of extremist sentiment for years, and its clerics in 2004 issued a fatwa decreeing that Pakistani soldiers killed while fighting against Islamic militants would not be entitled to Muslim funeral prayers or burial.
In the NWFP, signs of a growing crisis go beyond the weekend bombings. Taliban elements in one area are reported to have imposed Islamic law (shari'a), ordering people to refrain from "anti-Islamic" activities like listening to music.
And pro-Taliban tribal chiefs have broken a 10-month-old ceasefire agreement with Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government, citing attacks by security forces and accusing the government of creating problems at checkpoints.
According to the September 2006 truce, soldiers manning security posts throughout the NWFP were to return to their barracks, and radicals undertook not to carry out any further attacks in Pakistan or across the border in Afghanistan.
"The peace agreement has ended," militant spokesman Abdullah Farhad announced, attributing the decision to Maulvi Gul Badahar, a Taliban chief in the province's North Waziristan district.
Some political analysts have long characterized the truce as a ploy to provide a refuge for Taliban fighters to retire to after attacking Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces across the border. Pakistani officials countered that the pact had helped tribal leaders police their own people while allowing Pakistani troops to assist U.S. forces in the frontier areas.
It's a strategy that appears to have failed. U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in a televised interview advised Musharraf to regain control of areas adjoining Afghanistan, saying his strategy of giving autonomy to tribal leaders had proved counter-productive.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher recently told a congressional panel that the U.S. spends $1.2 billion a year for 85,000 Pakistani troops in NWFP to assist U.S. forces in the fight against terrorists.
Regional political analyst and former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar predicted that the deteriorating security situation may "result in a draw down of U.S. influence in Pakistan, given the pervasive 'anti-Americanism' in the country."
There have been signs of growing public anger against the government.
A lawyers' representative body, the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), passed a resolution Saturday accusing Musharraf of deliberately allowing the Red Mosque situation to get out of control, to demonstrate to his U.S. allies that Pakistan is seething with extremism.
The lawyers accused the government of "gross incompetence" and demanded a judicial inquiry.
Opposition politicians have also called for an inquiry into the affair, and one leading opposition figure, Imran Khan, predicted in an interview with Indian news channel CNN-IBN that "Musharraf won't be in power by the end of September."
Noting that the Pakistani military had "removed three dictators before," Khan said Musharraf had lost considerable sympathy inside the country, where many see him as aiding a "war against Islam."
After Mosque Violence, Musharraf Vows Again to Act Against Extremism (July 13, 2007)
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