Pakistani Taliban Chief Asserts Responsibility for Assault on Police Academy

The commander of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Tuesday for a deadly assault on a Pakistani police academy and said the group was planning a terrorist attack on the White House. Video by AP
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

KABUL, March 31 -- The reclusive commander of the Pakistani Taliban said Tuesday that his fighters had carried out Monday's bold assault on a police academy in eastern Pakistan and boasted that he was planning a terrorist attack in Washington that would astonish the world.

Baitullah Mehsud, an Islamist leader from the South Waziristan tribal area in northwest Pakistan, called several international news agencies in Pakistan to assert responsibility for the armed occupation of the police training compound that ended with 11 people dead.

He also told reporters that he was planning to attack targets in the U.S. capital in retaliation for more than 30 strikes by unmanned U.S. aircraft that have targeted suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.

"Soon we will launch an attack on Washington that will amaze everyone in the world," Mehsud told the Associated Press. In a separate phone conversation, he told Agence France-Presse that his forces had carried out the police academy attack near the city of Lahore as an act of revenge for the U.S. drone raids. "There will be more such attacks," he said.

The U.S. government has already offered a $5 million reward for the capture of Mehsud, and the State Department has described him as a major "al-Qaeda facilitator" in the northwest tribal region, where he commands thousands of fighters.

The young, religious guerrilla leader has rarely been seen or heard in public. He has never before issued such a specific threat to do harm directly to the West. But he has denounced Western culture and values as decadent and vowed to bring strict Islamic rule to the area of Pakistan where he resides.

U.S. counterterrorism officials Tuesday dismissed Mehsud's threat to attack Washington.

Mehsud, believed to be in his 30s, has been accused by Pakistani authorities of organizing the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in the city of Rawalpindi. In addition, he is believed to have organized the truck bombing of a luxury hotel in Islamabad, the capital, that killed more than 60 people last September.

Mehsud heads an alliance of extreme Islamist groups in northwest Pakistan called Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan. For the past several years, the groups have been spreading violent religious dogma throughout the area's lawless tribal zones, attacking Pakistani military and police units and sending followers into Afghanistan to fight government and U.S.-led coalition forces.

Mehsud's assertion of responsibility for a sophisticated terrorist attack on a large police compound more than 300 miles from his base suggests that his terrorist reach is longer and stronger than ever, and that he may have forged broader alliances with anti-government Islamist groups in Punjab province, a region with a different ethnic and cultural base than South Waziristan.

On Monday, Pakistani officials initially suggested that several banned Islamist groups based in Punjab were responsible for the latest attack, then later broadened their list of suspects to include Mehsud.

Pakistan's year-old civilian government has been unable to quell a growing tide of Islamist and criminal violence in the northwest and has been badly shaken by attacks in Punjab, including an assault on a visiting cricket team from Sri Lanka that killed seven people in Lahore on March 3.

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