Militants escalate Pakistan ‘guerrilla war’

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Lahore, near the border with India and hundreds of miles from the nation’s militant-infested northwest, has been hit with terrorist attacks in the past. The FIA building was bombed in 2008 while the police academy was attacked in March.

But the precision and scope of Thursday’s operation was unprecedented.

“The Taliban have succeeded in one way,” said Imtiaz Rasool, a political analyst. “They have taken their battle from the North West Frontier Province and brought it to Punjab. Now in Peshawar, people fear walking on the streets and the same is happening in Lahore. Once fear comes to a city, the fight is almost over.” Lahore is the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

In Liberty Market, one of the most popular and bustling commercial districts in the city, streets were deserted and shopkeepers despondent.

“We have given up hope of the situation ever getting better,” said Riaz Khan, 40, a shop owner who is planning to close his doors soon. “The numerous bomb blasts have scared all the shoppers away.”

U.S. officials insist Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe from the militants.

“We see no evidence that [the militants] are going to take over the state,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after what was perhaps the most brazen attack of the past two weeks - a strike against Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon.

She spoke after a 22-hour standoff at army headquarters in Rawalpindi ended Sunday with 23 dead, including eight gunmen, who managed to penetrate the complex and take hostages.

A day after the siege ended, a bombing in Shangla near the Swat Valley killed more than 40.

Even before Thursday’s attack, one could see a quiet transformation of Lahore. Women have taken to the burqa, an all-covering robe with a screen over the face, in increasing numbers. CD and DVD shop owners have stopped playing loud music, and theater plays have almost completely come to a standstill.

Twenty-eight people died in Lahore on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse. They included 14 policemen, five civilians and nine attackers, provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the wire service. Several attackers killed themselves by detonating their vests before they could be captured.

In the northwest town of Kohat, 11 people died, including three policemen, when a suicide bomber rammed a van into the outer wall of a police station. In Peshawar, one child was killed by a car bombing on a residential building for government employees, Agence France-Presse reported.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s attacks. A Taliban alliance based in the tribal area of South Waziristan claimed responsibility for the strikes on the U.N. office and the army headquarters, calling them payback for the August death of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in an August rocket attack.

Pakistani troops have largely sealed off the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled. An estimated 10,000 fighters remain, awaiting an offensive by ground forces that officials say will begin any day.

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