Pakistan Seeks Taliban's Mehsud, Thought to Be Behind Bhutto Assassination

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 15, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 14 -- Pakistani officials announced Sunday night that security forces will launch a military operation against Baitullah Mehsud, a feared Taliban leader who has asserted responsibility for numerous suicide bombings across the country and who is believed to have ordered the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in late 2007.

The announcement by officials in North-West Frontier Province came after a week of deadly attacks attributed to the Pakistani Taliban, including the bombing Tuesday of a five-star hotel that killed 11 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar and the assassination Friday of a moderate Sunni Muslim cleric in another suicide bombing here in the capital of Punjab province.

It also followed another day of violence in the northwestern region where the Taliban forces are based. A bomb hidden in a market cart in the town of Dera Ismail Khan killed at least eight people and wounded 25, and a suspected U.S. drone aircraft fired a missile in the tribal region of South Waziristan, reportedly killing three Islamist fighters, officials said.

Provincial Gov. Owais Ghani said at a news conference in Peshawar on Sunday that the government will soon begin a military operation against Mehsud in South Waziristan, the rugged semiautonomous region near the Afghan border that has been his stronghold for several years. Ghani did not say when it would begin, but an army spokesman confirmed that the decision had been made.

Last month, the army launched a major offensive against Taliban forces in the region around the northwest Swat Valley, sending more than 2 million refugees fleeing to other districts for safety. Until now, however, it has been reluctant to penetrate more dangerous tribal districts in pursuit of Mehsud and other Taliban leaders, who seek to forcibly impose a draconian version of Islam on the nation.

"Baitullah is the root cause of all the problems. He is the axis of evil," Ghani told reporters. He said the young militant leader was responsible for "gory acts of terror," including the slaying of Bhutto at a rally in Rawalpindi and the recent string of deadly suicide bombings, among them a second attack Friday that killed four worshipers at a military-run mosque in Nowshera.

On Saturday, army officials said they had killed 30 militants in South Waziristan in retaliation for the Taliban attack here Friday that killed Sarfraz Naeemi, 61, a nationally respected Sunni cleric who had spoken out against the Taliban and declared that suicide bombings were un-Islamic. The cleric's slaying at his office after Friday prayers provoked nationwide condemnation and violent demonstrations by followers here.

South Waziristan, and the adjacent tribal area of North Waziristan, are also longtime sanctuaries for foreign militants, including al-Qaeda members, and the United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan to take more aggressive action against them. The U.S. military has staged dozens of aerial raids by unmanned aircraft over both districts in pursuit of foreign fighters, provoking widespread public hostility in Pakistan.

Ghani said that the government had asked Mehsud and his tribal followers to expel foreign fighters and destroy their training camps but that they had failed to do so. He said officials had decided to launch the new operation "without coming under any external pressure."

In recent months, as Taliban forces have increasingly moved beyond their remote northwestern bases and launched attacks against urban targets across the country, the public attitude of relative indifference and some religious sympathy has shifted to disapproval and outrage. This in turn appears to be emboldening the army to take more aggressive action.

Army officials said they have made significant progress clearing towns and villages in the Swat region, claiming to have killed more than 2,000 militants, but displaced residents remain fearful of returning home.

On Friday, President Asif Ali Zardari announced that a permanent army garrison would be established in Swat, a once-peaceful tourist region that was overrun by the Taliban more than a year ago.

Special correspondent Hussain Shaiq in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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