RAWALPINDI: A Taliban suicide bomber killed 13 people, including eight soldiers and three children, in a market next to Pakistan Army’s headquarters on Monday, a day after one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent years.
A further 29 people were wounded in the blast which tore through RA Bazaar in Rawalpindi, only 15 metres from the army’s General Headquarters, at around 7.50 am. It came a day after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 26 soldiers and wounded at least 25 others in a suicide bombing in the town of Bannu. Two high-profile attacks in 24 hours mark a sharp upturn in violence from the TTP after a period of relative quiet following the death of their leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November.
An army statement said “13 persons including eight security forces personnel, three schoolchildren and two other civilians embraced shahadat (martyrdom) while 29 were injured in this cowardly act of terror.” Earlier, Haroon Joya, a senior police official at the scene of the blast, told reporters: “It was a suicide attack, we are collecting evidence from the spot. We have collected some body parts suspected to be of the suicide bomber.” The top government official in Rawalpindi, Sajid Zafar Dall, said the attack occurred as children were going to school.
“Our initial assessment is that the bomber was possibly on a bicycle and he then approached the target on foot,” he said. The blast left the market place a mess of twisted shutters and rubble, with pieces of human flesh scattered on the ground, an AFP reporter said. The military headquarters came under attack in 2009, when militants laid siege to the complex for 24 hours. A total of 19 people died including eight militants.
TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid claimed Monday’s attack as payback for a deadly military raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007. “It was carried by one of our suicide bombers to take revenge for the Red Mosque massacre,” he told AFP. “We will continue our struggle against the secular system.” Eyewitnesses described the power of the explosion. “I was reading a newspaper after opening my shop and all of a sudden I heard a big blast,” Liaqat Ali, a grocery shop owner near the site told AFP.
“The intensity of the blast threw me off my chair. I rushed outside and saw smoke and smoke everywhere. I saw injured laying and screaming on the ground.” Police and commandos cordoned off the area as ambulances took wounded to a nearby military hospital. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif later chaired a meeting of the cabinet, declaring that “Pakistan is facing a serious security situation and to address the extraordinary situation, we need to take extraordinary measures,” according to a statement.
He added that illegal movement along Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan needed to be curbed and directed officials to form a joint-strategy with their Afghan counterparts. But analysts said the Taliban’s ability to carry out two such high-profile attacks in quick succession raised fresh questions about the country’s strategy for dealing with the homegrown militant threat. Nawaz’s government has said it wants talks with the Taliban and received the backing of all major political parties for dialogue in September.
But so far little progress has been seen and terror attacks rose 20 percent in 2013, according to the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Retired brigadier Shaukat Qadir, a security analyst, said the militants were taking advantage of the government’s lack of policy direction. “You can keep talking about talks but this is what will happen to your talks. The Taliban have stated it quite loud and clear,” he said. The fact the TTP had struck in Rawalpindi, the very heart of Pakistan’s military establishment, carried significant symbolic value, he added.
In claiming the Bannu attack on Sunday, the TTP threatened to carry out more strikes, saying they wanted revenge for the deaths of Mehsud and deputy Waliur Rehman – both killed in US drone attacks. But Shahid also said the group was “ready for meaningful negotiations” if the government halted US drone strikes and withdrew troops from the tribal areas along the Afghan border where Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants have hideouts. Talat Masood, a security analyst and retired general, dismissed the renewed talks offer as a “red herring” meant to stop the government from approving retaliatory military operations.
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