Militants Seize Shrine in Pakistan
Monday, July 30, 2007; 3:26 PM
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pro-Taliban fighters seized an Islamic shrine in restive northwestern Pakistan and renamed it after the Red Mosque, where dozens of militants died this month in a showdown with government forces in the capital, officials said Monday.
The attack drove home the lack of government control in the tribal region, where a local government official said authorities were trying to negotiate the militants' peaceful departure from the shrine.
Three soldiers and four civilians died in other violence in the northwest, where President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is under growing pressure from Washington to crack down on the Taliban and al-Qaida.
U.S. officials have floated the possibility of unilateral military strikes in the tribal regions, a possibility that Pakistan once again strongly rejected.
"Pakistan will not allow any foreign forces to conduct activities inside its territory," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told legislators Monday, according to a government statement.
"The integrity and sovereignty of the country will be protected at all cost and no outside interference will be allowed," Aziz said.
The government also criticized a bill that would tie development aid to Pakistan's progress in fighting militancy.
About 70 pro-Taliban militants overran the shrine of renowned Pashtun freedom fighter Sahib Turangzai and its adjoining mosque in Mohmand tribal region late Sunday, a militant representative said.
They evicted the mosque's caretakers, renamed it and declared their support for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy cleric of the Red Mosque, who had spearheaded an increasingly aggressive, Taliban-style anti-vice campaign in the capital.
Troops finally cracked down on the mosque and Ghazi was killed along with at least 101 other people after a weeklong siege that ended July 12.
In Mohmand, the militants vowed to set up a girls' seminary at the site _ reminiscent of the one in Islamabad where the anti-vice campaign was centered and that was demolished by authorities after the siege.
"We will ensure education here for students who were dispersed after the operation against Lal Masjid in Islamabad," Khalid Omar, a man who claims to speak for the militants, said in telephone calls to journalists in Peshawar.
A government official in Mohmand, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, confirmed the militants had taken control of the shrine. He said authorities have sought the help of tribal elders to get the militants to leave the area peacefully.
Meanwhile, at least three security officers and four civilians died in violence in North Waziristan, a tribal region where the army recently redeployed forces and set up checkpoints.
In reaction to the redeployment, militants pulled out of a September 2006 peace deal with the government and launched a wave of attacks that killed dozens of people, mostly security forces.
Late Sunday, rockets hit a military camp near Miran Shah, slightly wounding four troops, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said.
Near Bannu, a town bordering North Waziristan, troops fearing a suicide attack shot and wounded a civilian who failed to heed an order to stop as he drove toward an army convoy, police official Shafiullah Khan said. Four civilians were caught in the crossfire and killed.
Arshad said militants had opened fire at the scene and security forces had fired back, leading to the civilian casualties.
On Monday, a roadside bomb killed three paramilitary troops near a checkpoint about a mile north of the main town of Miran Shah, an army statement said. Seven suspects were detained for planting another bomb in an attack on a troop convoy route that caused no casualties, it said.
In the capital, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam criticized a bill the U.S. Congress passed last week tying foreign aid to Islamabad's efforts to stop militants operating in its territory. The bill is awaiting President Bush's approval.
"If this happens it would not only be harmful for Pakistan, but it would also undermine the U.S. interest," Aslam said.
Musharraf has been a key ally of Washington in fighting terrorism since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, but has faced accusations from some quarters in Pakistan of being too closely tied to America.
Associated Press writers Bashirullah Khan in Miran Shah and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad contributed to this report.