Militants ambushed a military convoy in Pakistan’s volatile northwest on Saturday, killing two detained aides of a senior cleric with close ties to the Taliban in the Swat Valley, the army said.
It was not clear if the attack was an attempt to rescue the prisoners or assassinate them before then could provide intelligence to the military — or even if the attackers knew that Taliban-linked prisoners were in the convoy.
But it underscored the instability in the northwestern region, even with some 15,000 troops fighting to end the Taliban’s control there.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas also conceded that victory in the month-old offensive could only be declared when top Taliban leaders have been killed — something that hasn’t happened yet.
“They are the center of the gravity of this movement, and unless and until they are killed, we cannot declare victory in this whole operation,” he told reporters Saturday.
Abbas said that Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban chief in Swat, had been “targeted” three times so far in the campaign after intelligence reports suggested his whereabouts and that he may have been wounded. But there was no confirmation of Fazlullah’s condition.
Before dawn on Saturday, a roadside bomb and gunfire hit the convoy as it traveled from Sakhakot town near Swat to the main northwestern city of Peshawar, the army said. One soldier also died in the attack and five were wounded.
The army identified the prisoners as Muhammad Maulana Alam and Ameer Izzat Khan, top aides to hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad, who is father-in-law to Fazlullah. Sufi Muhammad negotiated a peace deal with the government that was widely seen as allowing the Taliban to take control of the valley.
The deal collapsed earlier this year when the Taliban advanced into neighboring districts, triggering a military offensive that prompted a spree of retaliatory attacks by militants in the northwest and beyond.
“These two were being transported so that intelligence agencies could investigate them when an IED and gun attack was launched on the military convoy,” Abbas said, using the abbreviation for an improvised explosive device.
The motive for the attack was not known yet, but he added, “I wouldn’t rule out that they were targeted or killed on purpose.”
Rasul Bahksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University, said the killings may have been deliberate to prevent Alam and Khan from giving the military information that could help find Taliban leaders.
“I think it was a targeted killing by the militants because they could identify the whereabouts of some of the militant” leaders, Rais told the Express 24/7 television network. “They were high-value targets.”
The offensive in Swat is seen as a test of Pakistan’s resolve to take on militants who have challenged the central government’s rule by strengthening their influence in the border region with Afghanistan. While no senior Taliban have been captured or killed, 1,305 militants and 105 soldiers have died so far, Abbas said.
Security forces detained Alam and Khan during a raid last Thursday at a religious school in a district near Swat.
The Taliban have vowed a campaign of retaliatory attacks for the military offensive, and a series of bombings and shootings have hit security forces and civilian targets across the northwest.
On Friday, an attacker wearing an explosive vest blew himself up inside a packed mosque during prayers, killing at least 33 people and wounding 40 more in Haya Gai village in Upper Dir, a rough-and-tumble district next to Swat.
Atif-ur-Rehman, a top official in Upper Dir’s government, said the mosque may have been targeted because villagers opposed Taliban who wanted to move into the area and had sometimes clashed with them. Last month, villagers closed a road leading from their community to a nearby Taliban stronghold.
“They have been up in arms with militants. The move to block the Taliban’s entry route to the village could be the main reason for the blast,” he told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke said during a visit to Islamabad that Washington was going to strengthen efforts to cut funding for extremism in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. would shift focus from fighting opium-poppy production to examining other methods, such as people hand-carrying funds and the Islamic exchange system called “hawala,” which consists of vast, informal money-transfer networks.
“In the past there was a feeling that … the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan, that is simply not true,” Holbrooke told reporters on Friday.
“The United States is going to downgrade crop eradication as part of its policies in Afghanistan,” he said. “We’re going to upgrade interdiction. We going to upgrade going after the major drug traffickers … but we want to focus on where the money really comes from.”