|More than a hundred Pakistani civilians have died in four attacks carried out in less than a week [AFP]
Officials say the latest deadly attacks reveal the extent to which the Pakistani Taliban is supported by ethnic Punjabi groups, in addition to the Pashto-speaking tribesmen of the northwestern border areas.
Four attacks in less than a week have claimed over 120 lives and include a 22-hour raid on the army’s general headquarters just 16km from the capital, Islamabad.
The attacks show it is not only Pashtuns who are opposed to Islamabad’s government as well as the Pakistani army and police force, according to representatives of Taliban.
Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility on Monday for that attack, saying “it was carried out by our Punjab unit”.
“And we will continue to take revenge for our martyrs and will carry out more attacks, whether it’s the GHQ [the army’s general headquarters] or something bigger,” he said.
And Major-General Athar Abbas confirmed that Muhammad Aqeel, also known as Dr Usman and a former member of the army medical corps, had led the attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Aqeel is an ethnic Punjabi.
Aqeel is believed to have orchestrated an ambush on Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team in Lahore, a failed attempt to shoot down then-president Pervez Musharraf’s jet with an anti-aircraft gun, and a suicide attack that killed the army surgeon-general in February 2008, according to Zulfikar Hameed, a police investigator.
Hameed says that Aqeel was recruited into Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Janghvi, armed groups based in the Punjab province.
Jaish and Lashkar have long been blamed for attacks on Western targets in Pakistan, as well as on minority Shia populations.
Both groups are believed to have had links with Pakistan security agencies, which used their members to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and India before 2001.
The Punjab connection is significant because ethnic Punjabis dominate the army and the major institutions of the Pakistani state, Shuja Nawaz, head of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington, has been quoted as saying.
“Their involvement means that their break with the military and the [intelligence services] is now complete. The question is: Will the military have the capacity to take operations against them?” he told the Washington Postnewspaper.
Monday’s suicide bombing took place in Shangla, a Pashto-speaking area of the Swat valley region. The attacker was apparently targeting a military vehicle, but most of the victims were ordinary Pakistanis.
TV footage of the bombing showed vegetable stands with their wares spilled on the street, two-storey buildings with their fronts torn away and several wrecked cars.
The attack killed 45 people, including six security officers, and wounded dozens of others, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the provincial information minister, said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but it was the deadliest attack in the region since the army claimed to have cleared the valley of Taliban in an offensive earlier this year.
While many anti-government fighters were killed or captured in the army offensive, others are believed to have gone to rural areas or neighbouring districts.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the past week as the military has been preparing to launch another major offensive on the border region of South Waziristan.
On October 5, a bomber blew himself up inside a heavily guarded UN aid agency in the capital, Islamabad, killing five staffers.
On Friday, an attacker detonated an explosives-laden car in the middle of a busy market in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 53 people.
The raid on army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi began on Saturday when 10 heavily armed fighters shot their way past the front gate.
They then seized more than 40 hostages and held them overnight in a building inside the vast compound. Commandos stormed the building on Sunday. The army said nine Taliban members and 14 other people were killed, mostly members of the security forces.