ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — More than 40 people were killed Monday in a suicide bombing aimed at a military convoy in Pakistan’s restive Swat Valley.
The fourth militant attack in eight days occurred in the town of Alpuri in Shangla district, an area the military had claimed was secured, and it’s being seen as the Taliban’s latest attempt to engage the Army on several fronts ahead of the Army’s planned ground offensive on the Taliban’s South Waziristan base.
It comes a day after the Army ended a 22-hour long hostage siege at their headquarters in Rawalpindi, freeing around 40 military personnel and civilians. Three hostages, 11 military personnel, and eight militants were killed during the course of the siege, which ended shortly before dawn on Sunday, while one militant, believed to be the ringleader, was captured alive.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the attack was evidence of an increasing threat to the authority of the Pakistani state.
Dr. Rifaat Hussain, a military analyst at the Quaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad says the two attacks are “related to the initial phase of the South Waziristan operation where the military are using airstrikes to soften their targets. The Taliban feel it’s in their interests to take on the security forces in as many theatres as possible to prevent the military from succeeding in South Waziristan just as they did in Swat.”
Back to square one?
Major Mushtaq Khan, a spokesman for the military’s Swat Media Center, told the Monitor that Monday’s blast occurred when a young militant, believed to be in his early teens, walked in front of a convoy and blew himself up. The trucks were loaded with munitions and amplified the effects of the blast, he said.
A dozen shops, several cars, and packed buses were caught in the blast which occurred in a crowded bazaar area.
“People had just begun to feel a little safer, they felt there had been progress. Now it seems like we are back to square one,” says Hameedullah Khan, the Swat correspondent for Dawn, a leading English daily.
Dr. Hussain, the analyst, says that the attack shows the Taliban continue to prove a “grave danger” to Swat four months after the army declared an end to major operations there.
When viewed together with the suicide bombing that took place in the north-western city of Peshawar on Friday and Saturday’s siege of the military’s headquarters, the attacks are signs of either “the last gasp of a heavily weakened network or a still vibrant group that chose to show its strength on its own terms,” he says.
Taliban safe havens in Swat Valley
In Swat, Hameedullah Khan says that although the Taliban have been weakened in urban areas, they are still able to find safe havens in the mountains that run along the border between the Swat, Shangla, and Buner districts and the military needs to do more to plug the remaining gaps.
“The military conduct their missions in the morning but return by afternoon. They have no permanent posts in the mountains,” says Mr. Khan, adding that the Army penetration in rural areas in western Swat also remains limited. Pakistan has recently tried to police such rural areas through the use of civilian militias, known as lashkars, though so far results have been mixed as the lashkars find themselves targeted by Taliban.
Also worrying is the fact that despite several arrests, some top militant leaders, including Maulana Fazlullah, chief of the Swat Taliban, remain free. According to Khan, so far 11 top militant leaders have been killed or captured out of a wanted list of 23 that was issued by the military.
The attack was followed by an immediate resumption of curfew in the Shangla area a day after it had been lifted. It seems likely, says Khan, that the curfew will be extended throughout the whole of Swat, in what will be a demoralizing blow to the civilian population.