Pakistan: Suicide bombing in capital raises concerns about negotiating with militants

Marking the anniversary of a government operation against the radical Red Mosque, the attack suggests some militants are growing bolder.

A suicide bomber blew himself up in the heart of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Sunday, killing at least 15 and injuring dozens more. The attack has raised concerns about Pakistan's transition to civilian rule and the coalition government's policy of negotiating with militants in the region.

The bomber targeted police guarding a protest organized to mark the anniversary of a siege at the city's radical Red Mosque. During that operation in July 2007, 100 people were killed when government forces stormed and seized the mosque, which militant students and clerics had made their headquarters during a six-month-long campaign to enforce Islamic law.

During Sunday's protest, religious students called for President Pervez Musharraf, who had directed the mosque operation, to be publicly hanged. Bloomberg reported further on the sentiments that governed the event.

The rally represented part of a "jihad against America" that "will continue until the last drop of our blood," declared Shah Aziz, a cleric and former member of parliament.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but security officials told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that they were investigating the presence of banned Islamic extremist groups at Sunday's rally.

Pakistani security officials said they were focusing on the presence of some members of banned Islamic extremist groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Sipah-e-Sihaba, at Sunday's rally to commemorate the 2007 raid.
"We have no firm leads but we are examining the possibility that some of these groups may have been involved or were in league with followers of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque)," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for Pakistan's main umbrella organization of Taliban militants, led by top commander Baitullah Mehsud, said he was not aware of any of the group's members having claimed responsibility.
"I am not in a position to indicate any claim of responsibility, I have not heard from any of our groups," spokesman Maulvi Omar told AFP by telephone from an unknown location.

The BBC reported that both President Musharraf and the US government denounced the attack.

President Pervez Musharraf condemned the attack and reiterated the government's commitment to root out terrorism in "all its forms and manifestations".

The White House also denounced the bombing, saying it was a "needless act of violence".
National security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "Extremists continue to show their disregard for all human life and their willingness to kill fellow Muslims. We will continue to stand with the people of Pakistan as they face this common enemy."

According to the Associated Press of Pakistan, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters that an upper limb of the suicide bomber had been recovered from the blast site. He added that Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani had set up a special committee to investigate the attack.

The Guardian emphasized the significance of the Red Mosque siege to militants in Pakistan.

Last year's raid on the Red Mosque led to a campaign of suicide bombings across Pakistan, aimed mostly at the police and army personnel, but peace talks with militants opened by the new government had led to a reduction in attacks. Last month a deadly explosion at the Danish embassy in Islamabad showed that an intractable element had decided to continue the violence. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the embassy bombing.
It is widely believed in Pakistan that up to 3,000 died in the Red Mosque operation, mostly girls studying at the adjacent seminary, and that their bodies were buried in secret graves. That belief has made the Red Mosque a central political issue, and it is thought to be one of the reasons why the allies of President Pervez Musharraf, who ordered the operation, were punished at elections in February.

Reuters pointed out that Sunday's attack would raise new concerns about national security as well as fresh questions about the three-month-old government's strategy of negotiating with militants. It also reported that Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who took over as leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) after his wife's death, said on Monday that the government would act decisively.

"Pakistan People's Party realises the grave threat that such terrorist activities pose to the country and the PPP government will do everything possible to check the activities of such elements and those responsible will be brought to justice," he said.

Others seemed less sure. Time magazine said that the attack augured ill for Pakistan's future security.

Even if no culprit is revealed, the message is clear. Terrorists are no longer limited to the lawless tribal lands along the border with Afghanistan. They have set their sights on the Pakistani capital, and the government seems increasingly unable to do anything about it.
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