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Taleban bring new fear to Peshawar

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

The wreckage of a truck destroyed by an explosion near Peshawar
Peshawar has seen many bombings and suicide attacks since last year

The city of Peshawar in north-west Pakistan faces a heightened threat from Islamist militants barely five months after a military operation cleared them from its outskirts.

Back in July, suspected militants based in the tribal region surrounding the city started bombing music stores and warning barbers against shaving their clients' beards in several areas of the city's outskirts.

They also picked up some prostitutes from the city to punish them for their "sins", and kidnapped more than a dozen members of the minority Christian community.

The perpetrators were widely believed to be criminal gangs connected to the tribal underworlds operating out of Darra Adamkhel and Khyber tribal regions - both lying just outside the administrative boundaries of Peshawar.

Different threat

The authorities at that time tried to explain the activities of these groups as an attempt to take advantage of an increasingly demoralised police force.

Map

A month-long operation by the security forces followed, pushing the militants deep inside the tribal region and dismantling their headquarters there.

The nature of threat has since changed.

Since Tuesday, the militants have struck in the city three times.

First, a suicide bomber narrowly missed the governor and some ministers of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as they were leaving a stadium in Peshawar after the closing ceremony of national games.

At least three people were killed in the attack.

On Wednesday, unidentified gunmen shot dead a US national who was working for a USAid-run project for the development of the Taleban-occupied tribal areas.

They have now kidnapped a Peshawar-based Iranian diplomat after killing his bodyguard.

Attacks on American, Afghan and Chinese nationals have taken place before, but this is the first time that suspected militants have kidnapped the diplomat of a country which, like them, is professedly anti-American.

'Guerrilla tactics'

Many point out, however, that the puritanical Sunni Taleban are ideologically opposed to Shia Muslims, and consider them a legitimate target.

Iran is a Shia Muslim state.

Car used in Tuesday's suicide bombing
The centre of Peshawar was hit by a suicide bombing on Tuesday

This sequence of events has sent a shockwave through the city, with many people fearing that the security system of the government is collapsing.

But the NWFP Information Minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, has another explanation.

"The militants are resorting to guerrilla tactics and it doesn't mean that our security is lax," he told the media after the kidnapping of the Iranian diplomat.

"We expect these incidents to increase in coming days, because the militants are responding to the military operations we are conducting against them in some of their strongholds," he warned.

The Pakistani military says it has killed dozens of militants in Bajaur and Swat regions where security operations have gone on for several months now.

A number of foreign nationals have been killed or kidnapped in north-western Pakistan in the past four years.

In 2004, a militant group in South Waziristan region kidnapped several Chinese engineers working on a dam project in the area. They were freed in a subsequent army operation.

There have also been several attacks on high-profile individuals in the north-west since August, when gunmen in Peshawar tried to kill a top US diplomat, Lynne Tracy.

She was saved because she was travelling in a bullet-proof vehicle.

Since September, at least three Afghan officials are believed to have been kidnapped by suspected Taleban members, including Abdul Khaliq Farahi, the Afghan consul-general in Peshawar.

None of them has been recovered so far.

An Afghan foreign ministry official, Ahmad Baheen, told Pakistani journalists in Peshawar in October that while the Pakistani government was taking an interest in the recovery of Mr Farahi, "it is important that certain other Pakistani institutions also extend help in this regard".

Afghan officials have long blamed the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, for helping and funding the Taleban to destabilise Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, militants based in Darra Adamkhel claim they are holding a Polish engineer who went missing from the Attock area of Punjab province some months ago.

One of two Chinese engineers kidnapped from Dir district in late August also remains missing. The other escaped from his captors in October. He was one of the lucky ones.



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