18 December 2014

Pakistan to pursue terrorists even outside its borders

By Tim Craig, Pamela Constable and Daniela Deane 
December 17 

A Pakistani flag flies at half-mast on the compound a day after an attack by Taliban militants on a school in Peshawar, in Quetta, Pakistan. (Jamal Tarakai/EPA)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed Wednesday to pursue terrorists even outside his borders and lift a moratorium on the death penalty as Pakistanis staged mass funerals for the 141 people, mostly schoolchildren, killed the day before in a bloody siege at an elite army high school.

“We cannot take a step back from this war against terrorism,” the Pakistani prime minister said, addressing a hastily-called meeting of political parties in Peshawar, where Tuesday’s horrific school attack took place.

“It was decided that action would be taken against terorrists present on the Afghan side of the border,” he said, after speaking with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It was not immediately clear what actions that might entail.

He said a meeting between Pakistani officials and Ghani in Kabul was “successful,” adding that “important decisions were made that need to be implemented.”

Prayer vigils were meanwhile held across the nation to mourn those killed Tuesday after seven Taliban gunmen, explosives strapped to their bodies, scaled a back wall to enter the Army Public School and College.
During a memorial service, Pakistani school children pray for victims who were killed in an attack at the Army-run school in Peshawar. (Rehan Khan/EPA)

Students and teachers were then gunned down with some of the female teachers burned alive in an attack that shocked a country accustomed to continuing terrorist assaults. Army commandos, who quickly reached the scene, fought the Taliban militants in a day-long battle until the school was cleared and the attackers killed.

Tuesday’s bloody assault was an apparent retaliation for a major recent army operation after years of ambivalent policies toward the homegrown Islamist militants.

After spending the night in Peshawar, Pakistan’s powerful military chief made an emergency visit to Kabul to meet with Ghani and Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of coalition forces, to discuss the fallout of the attack on the school.

Speaking to reporters, Maj Gen. Asim Bajwa, chief spokesman for the Pakistan military, said army intelligence officers believe they know where the attack was coordinated from. Bajwa declined to pin the blame on militants residing in Afghanistan, but many Pakistani Taliban leaders are believed to reside in eastern Afghanistan.

Bajwa refused to rule out a cross-border military operation to try to capture or kill more Pakistani Taliban leaders. Instead, Bajwa repeatedly told reporters to “wait till tomorrow” for more information about what actions the Pakistan military may take.

“We will not rest unless and until every terrorist is killed,” Nawaz Sharif told the Peshawar meeting. “We cannot take a step back from this war against terrorism, there is no room for that especially after the tragedy that occured at the school.”

The prime minister also approved the decision of a ministerial committee to lift the death penalty, said Mohiuddin Wani, an official close to the Pakistani leader.

“It was decided that this moratorium should be lifted,” he said. “The prime minister approved.”

The mass targeting of children, in a military zone in the northwestern city of Peshawar, drew condemnation from around the world, as well as from across Pakistan’s political and religious spectrums — a rare display of unity in a country where Islamist violence is often quietly accepted and sometimes defended. The attack was also condemned by Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

The government declared a three-day mourning period, starting Wednesday. Some of the funerals were held overnight, but most of the children and staff killed were due to be buried Wednesday.

Some analysts suggested that after years of suicide bombings and attacks on markets, mosques, hotels and military bases, the insurgents had finally gone too far, and that widespread public outrage over this attack might signal a decisive turn in the nation’s — and the government’s — reluctance to fully take on the Taliban.

The massacre was the most intimate assault ever against Pakistan’s military, the nation’s most respected and powerful institution. The only comparable incident was in December 2009, when a small group of assailants penetrated army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and killed more than 30 people praying at an army mosque.

The death toll Tuesday also rivaled one of the highest in Pakistan in recent years, when suicide bombings in 2007 killed about 150 people in Karachiduring celebrations to welcome former prime minister Benazir Bhutto back to Pakistan after years in self-exile. Bhutto was assassinated soon after.

Yet even when previous attacks have drawn strong condemnation and vows of action from military officials, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment has remained deeply ambivalent about taking on the domestic Islamist forces and has often been accused of playing a double game in its partnership with the West in the war on terrorism.

One chief reason is that such extremist groups have long acted as proxies in Pakistan’s rivalry with India, an issue that trumps all others for Pakistan’s security leaders and that has long been seen as a far greater threat than Islamist militants. Terrorist attacks are routinely decried as the work of unknown foreign hands.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders, for their part, have long deferred to the army in security and foreign policy, and they have also been reluctant to act against Islamist violence, for fear of alienating the nation’s deeply religious Muslim masses and organized groups.

“Despite this national tragedy, I don’t see any chance of the nation as a whole building an anti-terrorism narrative,” said Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, a veteran Pakistani legislator from the northwest.

He noted that a variety of religious and political leaders have “deep sympathy” for the militants.

“For now they may tone down their support,” he said, but in time they will “start showing their true colors again.”

The army, however, has always been carefully attuned to public opinion, and Tuesday’s attack provoked a remarkably swift, broad and emphatic outpouring of revulsion and anger. News channels showed grim scenes of dead children in hospital beds, many still wearing green school uniforms, and of weeping mourners carrying hastily made pine coffins out of hospitals in Peshawar.

“Today is the saddest day of the history of our nation,” said Haniyah Siddiqui, 18, who was shopping in the port city of Karachi. “It is high time to make up our mind to fight terrorists and eliminate them in toto, not just mourning or condemning the tragic incident.”
‘Cowardly act’

Nawaz Sharif, who rushed to Peshawar, denounced the assault as a “cowardly act” and vowed to maintain military action “until the menace of terrorism is eliminated” from Pakistan. “The nation needs to get united and face terrorism,” he added. “We need unflinching resolve against this plague.”

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and Taliban attack survivor who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting girls’ education, said from England that she was “heartbroken” by “these atrocious and cowardly acts” but vowed that even as she and millions mourn the students’ deaths, “we will never be defeated.”

Her denunciation was echoed by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamist movement, whose followers were blamed for a 2008 terrorist siege on the Indian city of Mumbai. Saeed said the attack was “carried out by the enemies of Islam. It is open terrorism. . . . These are barbarians operating under the name of jihad.”

Even the Afghan Taliban, which operates separately from the Pakistani group but shares a religious agenda, took the unusual step of indirectly condemning the attack. A statement from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children are against the basics of Islam, and this criterion must be considered by every Islamic party and government.”

The Pakistani Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for the attack, saying it was to avenge Pakistan’s sweeping military operation in June in North Waziristan, part of a tribal region that straddles the Pakistan-
Afghanistan border. The group had been warning for months that it would take revenge.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst, said the attack was “unprecedented,” even in a country that has experienced thousands of terrorist attacks over the past decade. He said the Taliban appears to be growing more desperate as the military operations continue.

“Now they are attacking the soft targets,” Rizvi said.

But Mohammad Khorasani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said the attack was “a gift for those who thought they have crushed us in their so-called military operation in North Waziristan.” He said such opponents were “always wrong about our capabilities. We are still able to carry out major attacks, and today was just the trailer.”

In a statement, the group said six militants, including three suicide bombers, carried out the assault. After a gun battle that lasted nearly nine hours, Pakistani police officials said a total of seven militants had been killed.

An army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said the attackers sought “to inflict maximum harm” and took no hostages. Hundreds of people were also wounded as classrooms erupted in chaos and carnage, with students and teachers shot point-blank.
‘My dream has been killed’

The school, while open to the public, is funded by Pakistan’s army, and many students are children of military personnel based in Peshawar.

“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” wailed one father, Tahir Ali, as he collected the body of his 14-year-old son, Abdullah, according to the Associated Press. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”

Pervaiz Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said the Taliban attackers started “indiscriminate firing” after entering the school through a back door. The first students targeted were gathered in the auditorium to receive first-aid training, police said.

Muhammad Harris, 16, said he was in a room with 30 students and four teachers when they heard a commotion in the hall. The students said some of the attackers appeared to be speaking Arabic.

“Our female teacher went outside when we heard the firing and was shot dead,” Harris said. “One attacker was crying, ‘Help me, I am injured.’ But he was not and was trying to trap us and shoot us.”

Dozens of relatives, desperate for information about missing students, tried to reach the school on foot but were pushed back by a cordon of military guards as emergency and security vehicles rushed by. Some relatives shouted angrily; others milled about in distress.

Pamela Constable reported from Kabul, Daniela Deane from Rome. Brian Murphy and Karen DeYoung in Washington, Aamir Iqbal and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Nisar Mehdi in Karachi contributed to this report.

Daniela Deane was a reporter in four countries in Europe and Asia and a foreign affairs writer in Washington before she joined the Post. She now writes about breaking foreign news from both London and Rome.

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