Monday, October 12, 2009

Pakistan had warning of army headquarters raid

Jeremy Page and Zahid Hussain

PAKISTAN'S army and intelligence services had known about the plot to attack the military's headquarters in Rawalpindi - and even the names of those involved - since last month.

Commandos freed 39 hostages yesterday after one of the most audacious militant attacks yet on the country's powerful military.

They also captured the gunmen's alleged leader - identified as Mohammed Aqeel - who military sources said used to be in the army medical corps and had also been involved in an attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in March.

Aqeel and four other militants had holed up in the office building after storming the army compound with five other gunmen - all in army uniforms and carrying grenades and automatic weapons - at about midday on Saturday.

Analysts described the attack as a significant embarrassment for the army and intelligence services.

They also said the attack showed that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were increasingly working together with militant groups based in Punjab province, allowing them to hit targets across the country.

"If there is a message in this then it is that they can hit hard targets as well as soft targets," said retired General Assad Durrani, a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Aqeel, who used the alias Dr Usman, belonged to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Punjab-based militant group that has close links with al-Qa'ida and was blamed for the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team.

Aqeel escaped arrest in April this year when police raided his house in Kahuta, near Islamabad, according to General Abbas.

Security officials told The Times that the militants were all thought to be members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and another Punjab-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.

They also said that intelligence agencies had obtained the entire plan of the attack, and the names of those involved, from a computer disk recovered from a militant killed by police in southern Punjab last month. They appear, however, to have done little to prevent the attack.

"The militants have humiliated the army," said a retired brigadier, Javed Hussain.

This is the third militant attack in a week and comes as the army prepares to a launch an important attack on the northwestern tribal region of South Waziristan, the main al-Qai'da and Taliban stronghold in Pakistan.

It follows a suicide car bombing that killed 49 people in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday and a suicide bombing at a UN office in Islamabad that killed five people on last Monday.

Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, has blamed all three attacks on the Taliban and suggested that the army might bring forward the attack on South Waziristan, which the military has been preparing for since June.

"It has been decided, the civilian leadership has decided, the operation is imminent," Mr Malik said yesterday.

Hakimullah Mehsud, the new Pakistani Taliban leader, has warned that the Taliban planned to launch more attacks on military, government and other targets. He said that they would be revenge attacks for US drone strikes on the tribal areas, one of which killed his brother and predecessor as head of the Pakistani Taleban, Baitullah Mehsud, in August.

Six army personnel - including a brigadier in military intelligence and a lieutenant-colonel - and five militants were killed as the gunmen breached the compound's first gate and tried to storm the second gate.

Three hostages, two commandos and four more militants were killed in the rescue operation, during which Aqeel was also wounded and arrested, according to the army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas.

"They were in a room with a terrorist who was wearing a suicide jacket but the commandos gunned him down before he could pull the trigger," he said, adding that five more security personnel were injured.

"Now there is no terrorist left there. The operation is over."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, said in London the attack showed that militants represented a grave threat to the Pakistani state.

They also said there was no sign that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is controlled from another complex not far from the army headquarters, was at risk. "It is very important that alarmist talk is not allowed to gather pace," said Mr Miliband.

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