Pakistan: Bomb attack on ex-minister latest in militants' unrelenting campaign

Peshawar, 21 Dec. (AKI) - (by Syed Saleem Shahzad) - Friday's suicide bombing of a mosque in Pakistan's restive Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), apparently targeting Pakistan's outgoing interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, shows that militants are still up in arms against their perceived enemies in the government and military, observers have said.

A close ally of President Pervez Musharraf and candidate in Pakistan's general election taking place on 8 January, Sherpao was unharmed by the attack near his home in the village of Sherpao, about 40 km northeast of Peshawar.

Sherpao was among worshippers inside a packed mosque during prayers for the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival of sacrifice, when a suicide bomber detonated his device killing at least 50 people and wounding dozens.

It was the second apparent attack on Sherpao, a Pashtun, and former leader in ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) - now in opposition. He was in April slightly wounded in a suicide bombing at a political rally in the nearby town of Charsadda that killed at leat 28 people.

Pakistan's intelligence agencies already had warned of possible attacks against members of the outgoing government.

As interior minister in the government recently dissolved by the president ahead of elections, Sherpao was the country's top security official and led the government's campaign against Islamic militants in the country.

Sherpao was interior minister at the time of the military assault against Islamic militants holed up in their stronghold of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in which at least 100 died.

Many Pakistanis blame Sherpao for the Red Mosque siege, which sparked a wave violence across the country in which over 800 people have been killed including 200 soliders.

Despite heightened security, an intensifying wave of suicide bombings over the past six months has largely targeted the northwest. Most have been aimed at army and government targets.

Troops have driven the militants from a series of small towns and villages where they had tried to implement strict Islamic law.

The army says it has killed nearly 300 pro-Taliban militants in the Swat region in NWFP, which borders Afghanistan, and where thousands of troops have been deployed in recent months.

While interior minister, Sherpao developed a dedicated team under his ministry of interior which directly coordinated with the United States FBI against al-Qaeda and chalked out a map of key Taliban and al-Qaeda assets - from the Red Mosque to the Swat Valley to the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, including Waziristan.

Militants have also targeted non-government leaders such as Bhutto and others who have spoken out against al-Qaeda. Bhutto narrowly escaped a brutal assassination attempt when in October she returned to her home city of Karachi.

Top decision makers in Musharraf's past governments have clearly distanced themselves from Musharraf’s support for US president George W.Bush's 'war on terror' since al-Qaeda's deadly 11 September 2001 attacks against American cities.

Politicians who have rejected Musharraf's 'Pakistan first' slogan included former prime minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and former chief minister of Punjab province, Chaudhary Pervaiz Illahi.  


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