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Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Monday, 12 October 2009 15:41 UK

Pakistan's 'new zone of militancy'

Fears are growing that Pakistan's militancy may be spreading deeper into the country, far beyond the Afghan border region. The Pakistani Taliban said a faction of the group based in Punjab, the country's most prosperous province, had carried out a deadly attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October. From southern Punjab, Orla Guerin reports.

Abdul Razzaq, at the graves of his children
Abdul Razzaq's life has been shattered

Adbul Razzaq had one thing left after the explosion which consumed half his village, and claimed 17 lives. His house, his livestock and most of his family were gone. What remained intact was a single wooden chair.

When the blast happened at about 0900 on 13 July he was flung into the branches of a tree.

After regaining consciousness, he started digging in the rubble for his children, who had been playing in the yard. He located them three houses away.

"We found one of my sons beheaded," he said, running both hands along the sides of his neck. "I collapsed when I saw his body. My other son lived for a few moments and then stopped breathing.

"When we dug out my daughter, she was dead already."

Brutal wake-up call

All three lie in unmarked graves in a cemetery beside a field of cotton. Abdul Razzaq described his losses calmly, but his slight frame is withered by grief. His one surviving child was seriously injured in the blast. He keeps asking for his brothers and sisters.

Village bomber
If God gives me a chance in the future I'll go and fight the Americans and the British
Captured village bomber

"My heart is not at peace," Abdul Razzaq said. "I can't sit in one place. I just roam around the village, from one place to another."

The explosion in his remote village was one of a series of brutal wake-up calls about the growing militant threat in south Punjab.

Interviews we have conducted with senior police officers, independent analysts and militants in custody suggest that southern Punjab could be Pakistan's next battleground.

Internal police documents we have seen paint a picture of a province at risk.

One report states that "poverty stricken, extremely feudalistic and illiterate south Punjab could possibly provide shelter to Taliban and other jihadi outfits. It has the potential to become a nursery or a major centre for sectarian recruitment."

Some experts here argue that it has already reached that point. One describes it as "a factory for suicide bombers".

Police say that al-Qaeda has access to a labour pool via the banned sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), among others.

Containment

Al-Qaeda is operating as a parasitic presence on a loose network of militant groups in Punjab, according to Azmat Abbas, a Pakistani analyst who has been tracking militancy for years. "Al-Qaeda moves in and then it takes over the organisation," he says.

Bomber village in southern Punjab
Buildings in the village were severely damaged by the blast

Mr Abbas says he is worried by Pakistan's response to a threat that is now flaring in several places at once.

"The problem is it all seems to be just containment," he says. "They aren't focusing on Punjab, but we need to be fighting on several fronts at the same time."

Police in the town of Sargodha confirm that al-Qaeda, operating under the banner of the Punjab Taliban, is the main enemy they face.

They have managed to crack several militant cells this year, arresting more than 30 suspects including alleged masterminds and financiers.

"We have made a dent," said district police officer Usman Anwar.

"They are on the run, looking for hideouts. Our raids have stopped recruitment for the future. The heroes they worshipped are now in jail."

Mr Anwar says the fight is now going his way and the odds of victory are 80/20.

But for Usman Anwar, and others like him in the frontline against the militants, there is a key concern.

Several of those arrested in recent months were not even on police radar screens - like the man who blew up Abdul Razzaq's village. He was a respected local school teacher.

Locals in the area told us they never suspected him of any wrong-doing. They gathered round near the bomb site, men on one side and women on the other, describing him as very serious, gentle and kind.

"He was just like a brother," one villager said. "He was born here and educated here. How could we know what he was doing at home?"

Nurtured by the state

A white-haired elder joined in. "We used to hear about bombs going off in other places," he said. "We would try to imagine what that was like. Now we know the result is total devastation."

Manacled hands of village bomber
The village bomber was a respected local school teacher

We met the man who admits that he is to blame for the blast. For legal reasons we cannot identify him. He was hooded and chained during our interview.

He is linked to militants fighting in Afghanistan and said that he was storing explosives for them. When asked if he ever thought of the friends and neighbours he had killed, he wept as he replied.

"I am ready to go on my knees and beg forgiveness from everyone affected," he said.

"I pray the dead rest in peace. Had I known what would happen I would never have kept the explosives. I am grieving because I made such a big mistake and so many people died."

But he said he would have been happy if his explosives had killed British and American forces in Afghanistan.

"I would have been very happy," he said. "If God gives me a chance in the future I'll go and fight the Americans and the British."

The school teacher said that he was trained at a militant camp in Afghanistan in 1998, but never fought there. He stressed that in those days jihadis like him had the government's support.

Some of the groups menacing Punjab now were nurtured by the state in the past. They were tools of government policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir. While they still appear to have their protectors in Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the ISI, these days they are feeling the cold.

The militants did not take kindly to being dumped, according to a policeman heavily involved in hunting them down.

"They were like cheap soldiers for the Pakistan army," he said. "They were pampered by government agencies. But after 9/11, the government stopped providing money, support and places for training and they turned on the state. They are like jilted lovers."

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has expressed concerns about the growing threat in south Punjab.

Britain and America will be hoping that Pakistan reacts more quickly to this danger than it did to others in the past.



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