- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

UPDATE:

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Suicide bombers attacked a mosque and a religious school within minutes Friday in two Pakistani cities, leaving one of the country’s most prominent anti-Taliban clerics dead in what authorities called a targeted killing.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for either blast, but relatives of Sarfraz Naeemi said he had received death threats recently after condemning suicide attacks as un-Islamic and the Taliban as murderers.

Pakistan has been rocked by a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in recent weeks blamed on militants taking revenge for a military operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley region. More than 100 people have been killed since May 27, and places of worship have been targeted three times since last Friday.

The government has vowed to rid the country of militants, and it has been emboldened by broad support for the Swat campaign from a public that has started openly denouncing the militants after years of ambivalence.

After the blast that killed Naeemi, hundreds of outraged seminary students gathered at the scene and demanded the Taliban leave Pakistan. “Down with the Taliban!” they shouted.

The campaign has intensified pressure on the militants in strongholds they have established in the religiously ultra-conservative northwest on the border with Afghanistan.

Police official Sohail Sukhera said at least one assailant entered the offices of the Jamia Naeemia seminary in the heart of Lahore shortly after the end of traditional Friday prayers and detonated a bomb powerful enough to collapse the building. Two people died and six were wounded.

Naeemi was the apparent target of the attack and died on his way to a hospital, said his son, Waqar.

“I was still in the mosque when I heard a big bang. We rushed toward the office and there was a smell of explosives in the air. There was blood and several people were crying in pain,” Waqar said.

Television footage showed Naeemi’s body lying on a stretcher, his beard and hair covered in dust and blood stains around his nostrils.

Naeemi had recently led dozens of moderate clerics in meetings and lectures in which he denounced suicide attacks — a common tactic of Pakistan’s Islamist groups — and supported the military’s operation to oust the Taliban from Swat.

A leading moderate, he advocated equal access to education for women and the use of computers in schools — ideas sharply at odds with the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam.

Naeemi’s brother Mohammad Tajwar said the cleric had recently received death threats but had refused the offer of police protection.

The attack was quickly condemned as un-Islamic.

“A true Muslim even cannot think of such activity,” said Mufti Muneebur Rehman, a senior moderate cleric and Naeemi’s friend.

“He was someone who would never speak the language of bullets, and targeting such a soft person is a brutal act,” said Hamid Saeed Kazmi, Pakistan’s minister for religious affairs. “Those who have done it have not served Islam. They are not Muslims. They are the enemies of Islam and enemies of Pakistan.”

Punjab provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah blamed terrorists from the tribal areas and Swat for Friday’s attacks.

In the second attack around the same time Friday, a pickup truck loaded with explosives was rammed into the wall of a mosque in an area where soldiers live in Noshehra, a small city in the northwest, police official Aziz Khan said. At least four people died and more than 100 were wounded, he said.

Militants were blamed for a suicide attack a week earlier on a mosque in Upper Dir that killed at least 30 people. That blast prompted local villagers to form a civilian militia that has chased and killed several militants since.

Washington strongly backs the Swat operation, which is widely viewed as a test of Pakistan’s resolve to confront militancy after years of deals and policies criticized as being too soft on the militants.

Fierce fighting continued in Swat on Friday, the military said, where troops captured Chuprial town in a major battle that killed 39 militants and 8 soldiers. It was the highest death toll in a single day’s fighting in the offensive, which began in late April and which the army says it is close to winning.

Elsewhere Friday, gunmen in Peshawar attacked the home of Lt. Gen. Masood Aslam, the army commander of the Swat offensive, leaving him uninjured but two militants dead; and military jets began bombarding suspected militant strongholds in the tribal region of Bajur. Casualties were not immediately known there.

In another tribal region, Hangu, suspected militants detonated a roadside bomb that killed the regional police chief and four other officers, said Farid Khan, a police official.

In Peshawar late Thursday, one officer was killed and a dozen other people were wounded in a grenade and suicide bomb attack at a police checkpoint.


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