By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 20, 2007
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, July 19 -- The wave of violence that has gripped Pakistan in recent days spread to new parts of the country and featured more ferocious tactics Thursday, with suicide bombers targeting a mosque, a police academy and a convoy of Chinese engineers in attacks that killed more than 50 people.
The strikes yielded the highest single-day death toll since the government stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad last week. More than 120 people died during the standoff at the mosque, and more than 160 have been killed in the attacks that have followed.
The severity of the violence has stunned Pakistanis. It also has left the country groping for direction as the military, pro-democracy moderates and Islamic extremists vie for control in a struggle that appears likely to intensify. The military has vowed a fresh offensive and is moving troops into position, while extremists have declared jihad against the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and his government.
An attack Thursday at a mosque during evening prayers killed at least 18 people, including three children, heightening the sense of disarray. Police officials said a suicide bomber had mingled among the worshipers before detonating his charge.
Suicide attacks inside mosques are relatively rare in Pakistan. The mosque targeted Thursday is located on an army base in the northwestern town of Kohat, and many of the casualties were army recruits, police officials said.
Earlier in the day, a convoy of Chinese engineers being escorted through southern Pakistan by security forces was rammed by a car bomber and then pelted with gunfire in a crowded market area. The attack, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan and hundreds of miles from all of the previous incidents, claimed 30 lives. While the Chinese escaped unharmed, seven police officers were killed and the rest of the dead were believed to be civilians.
The day's violence began with a suicide strike at a police academy in the northwestern town of Hangu, where seven people were killed.
Thursday was the fifth consecutive day of deadly attacks. Most have been suicide bombings, but the targets have varied widely, with the victims including security forces, political activists and civilians.
The string of attacks follows the collapse over the weekend of a 10-month-old peace agreement between the government and tribal elders in the North Waziristan area along the Afghan border. U.S. officials have strongly criticized that deal, saying it gave al-Qaeda a haven to train and plot for attacks against the United States.
Retired Brig. Mehmood Shah, a former official in the tribal areas, said it is Pakistan that is getting the first taste of the terrorists' renewed strength.
"The lethality of the attacks has increased many-fold. They're well-coordinated," said Shah, who until 2005 was responsible for tribal area security. "The government painted a make-believe world about these tribal areas that did not exist -- that if you leave them alone, everything will be fine."
Now, Shah said, the government has little choice in how to react. "To get back in a strong position, you have to fight your way in," he said. "In the long run, there's no other way of dealing with the problem."
Sources in Pakistan's armed forces have said they are planning a major operation against extremist fighters and are readying troops and supplies. On Thursday, for the second straight night, residents of North Waziristan reported hearing shelling, though it was unclear who or what had been hit.
The United States has been prodding Musharraf to take a strong stand while providing the Pakistani military with intelligence to help with targeting, military sources said.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Tony Snow declined to rule out the possibility that the United States would carry out strikes in Pakistan.
"We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets," he said.
Musharraf has been trying this week to rally his country to support him in countering extremism. But his reputation among moderates has taken a severe blow this year, following his decision in March to suspend the country's chief justice. Musharraf has also alienated democracy advocates by saying he wants to be elected to a new term by the outgoing parliament and prefers to stay in uniform.
The Supreme Court has been reviewing Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's suspension and could rule as early as Friday on whether he can return to the bench.
Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Kamran Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.