Militants Attack Army Convoy, Killing 2 of Their Own

Posted in Pakistan | 08-Jun-09 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: New York Times

Pakistani policemen shift the dead body of a colleague into a hospital after a suicide attack in Islamabad on June 6.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Militants attacked a Pakistani Army convoy on Saturday, killing two high-level prisoners and a soldier, the military said, a strike that highlighted the reach that the Taliban still has a month after an offensive began against them.

The prisoners were connected to the militant leadership in the Swat Valley, where the campaign is taking place. They were deputies of Sufi Muhammad, a religious leader with ties to the Taliban whose son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah commands the Taliban in the area.

Mr. Muhammad leads a banned group called Tehrik-i-Nafaz-i-Shariah-Muhammadi, or TNSM, whose stated goal is the implementation of Islamic law and which is closely linked to the Taliban. His deputies who were killed were identified by the military and locals as Muhammad Alam and TNSM's spokesman, Amir Izat Khan.

A spokesman for Pakistan's military, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said by telephone that the attack happened at 5 a.m. near an area called Sakha Kot just north of Peshawar, the regional capital. A convoy of about six military vehicles hit a bomb in the road. Soon after, militants started shooting at the convoy, and soldiers returned fire.

General Abbas said all the casualties were caused by the bomb blast. It was not clear whether the attack was an attempted effort to rescue the two prisoners.

"This incident was the result of an I.E.D. attack," General Abbas said, using the initials for improvised explosive device, "which is a very usual affair in these areas."

The military has been clearing the valleys north of Islamabad since early last month, and appears to have made progress. Still, the attack on Saturday underscored the difficulty of their task.

Refugees from Swat, who lived for the past two years under Taliban brutality, said the military's capture of Mr. Khan and Mr. Alam, which took place several days ago, was an encouraging sign. But they said they would feel safe enough to return home only if the top leadership of the Taliban - Mr. Fazlullah and his spokesman, Muslim Khan - is killed. Mr. Muhammad's deputies were not among the Taliban's senior leaders.

At a news conference on Saturday, the military said that Mr. Fazlullah had been singled out three times, but that he escaped each time. Mr. Muhammad is still at large.

"I want to assure you that we have targeted the top leadership," General Abbas said at the news conference.

General Abbas also said that the military was not yet moving into South Waziristan, the area in Pakistan of the most intense Taliban and Qaeda concentration that is expected to be the focus of the military's next effort against the militants.

The United States has been pressing Pakistan to take action against its spreading Islamist insurgency and strongly supports the military campaign. On a three-day visit to Pakistan that ended Friday, Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's top envoy to Pakistan, praised the military's efforts as a fresh start in the fight.

The military has conducted two previous campaigns against militants in the area, but neither was successful, in part because it pulled back before completing the job.

"I am personally quite convinced that they are utterly serious about this issue," Mr. Holbrooke said at a news conference in Islamabad on Friday.

On Saturday, Pakistani authorities said two people were killed and four injured when a suicide bomber hit a municipal rescue service building in the capital, Islamabad, at 8:30 p.m. The police stopped the bomber from entering the building, limiting the number of casualties.

Salman Masood and Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting.