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Militants reassert themselves after Pakistan votes for moderates

Militants reassert themselves after Pakistan votes for moderates
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First Published: Wed, Mar 05 2008. 11 26 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Mar 05 2008. 11 26 AM IST
Islamabad: After a lull during Pakistan’s elections, militants have reasserted themselves with a string of deadly suicide blasts that have killed more than 80 people, including an army general and tribal leaders fed up with the violence.
The carnage illustrates the challenge facing the moderate parties who won a landslide victory but are busier confronting President Pervez Musharraf than drafting policy against resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
“This crisis is something that they have to respond to. I don’t think they can just sit pretty and think things are normal” once they have control of the government, said Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani political analyst.
The 18 February elections went off without a major terrorist attack, allowing the secular, pro-Western parties of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, to savor their victory.
Islamist groups as well as the party of Musharraf, who is deeply unpopular after eight years of increasingly authoritarian rule, were routed.
But militants have since lashed out with a series of grim suicide attacks on security forces and community leaders who will be central to any new push by the new government.
One week after the vote, a suicide bomber killed Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmed Baig, the most senior military officer to die in an attack since Musharraf joined the U.S. war on terror after the 11 September, 2001 attacks.
On Friday, some 40 people died when a bomber hit the funeral of a police officer in the Swat valley, a former tourist destination seized by Taliban-style militants last summer and where the army is still trying to reassert control.
Another blast killed 40 more on Sunday at a gathering of tribal leaders in Darra Adam Khel, a town near the Afghan border. The elders were meeting to set up a tribal militia to oppose Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
Four people died in Tuesday’s attack at a naval college in the eastern city of Lahore.
Pakistan’s newspapers are filled with exhortations for the next administration to quickly find ways to curb the violence, which has raised concern about the long-term stability of this nuclear-armed nation. But there is little optimism.
“One can only pity the men and women who form the new government,” The News daily wrote in its editorial on Monday. “The ugliness that exists in the hearts of militants who claim to speak in the name of religion is quite obviously deeply entrenched.”
The parties of Bhutto and Sharif insist they are committed to fighting extremism. Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December in an attack that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for her party, said it would not bow to suicide attacks that were “a deliberate attempt to destabilize and discourage the democratic government that will soon be taking over. They are trying to nullify the results of the election.”
He reiterated his party’s offer of dialogue with the militants, but only to those who renounce violence.
“For those who have taken up arms against the state, there is no negotiations with them ... the use of force is not ruled out,” Babar said.
But he acknowledged that the parties expected to form the new government have yet to discuss the matter.
Sharif has called for the war on terror to be redefined to dispel the perception of many Pakistanis that it is being waged only at America’s behest.
However, he has yet to detail how, if at all, his approach differs from that of the current government.
Under Musharraf, Pakistan launched a series of large-scale military operations against militant strongholds near the Afghan border. But it also struck peace accords that US officials complain allowed Taliban and al-Qaida to regroup.
Pakistani and US officials are now working on delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to the border region in a bid to build support for the government, which has never had more than loose control there.
Zehra, the analyst, said Musharraf’s counterinsurgency policy contained many of the right elements, but had appeared to be driven by short-term American concerns, leaving the public confused and increasingly cynical.
She said the parties of Bhutto and Sharif would be more sensitive to public opinion and forecast that once in office they would try to quickly draw up a more effective approach, also because of international concern about Pakistan’s stability.
But some commentators are already worried that a looming power struggle between the new government and Musharraf, who has accumulated sweeping powers since he seized control in a military coup, will detract from that effort.
The Post newspaper warned the new leaders that Pakistan faced the gravest security challenge since the 1971 civil war that led to Bangladesh breaking away.
“The people of Pakistan have just voted for democracy,” it said in an editorial. “It is time that the leadership takes on the enemies of democracy and peace with a resolve matching their insanity.”
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First Published: Wed, Mar 05 2008. 11 26 AM IST