ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Islamic militants launched a deadly suicide attack, detonated a roadside bomb and fired rockets in Saturday as thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to the northwestern frontier to thwart the launch of a holy war, officials said.
The escalating violence along the rugged Afghanistan border, a haven for local and foreign extremists, follows the government’s bloody attack on Islamabad’s Red Mosque which sparked calls for revenge from radical groups.
“With help from local tribal elders, we are trying to ensure that militants lay down their arms and stop issuing calls for jihad against the government,” a senior military official said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric who has close links to the outlawed Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, has told supporters to prepare for jihad against President Gen. Pervez Musharaff for the assault, the official said.
Pakistan commandos overran the mosque Wednesday, after an eight-day siege with a hard-line cleric and his militant supporters among more than 100 dead.
Fazlullah has pressed for Taliban-style rule in Pakistan — much like the leaders of the Red Mosque.
As the troop movement proceeded in at least five areas of the North West Frontier Province, a suicide bomber struck elsewhere in the border region, his explosives-laden vehicle killing at least 18 soldiers and wounding 28 others in a military convoy, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.
The attack in Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold where Washington says al-Qaida is regrouping, was one of the most lethal suicide attacks in recent months.
Elsewhere in the northwest, suspected militants detonated a bomb that struck a vehicle carrying soldiers in the town of Bannu, wounding two, said area police official Mohammed Khan.
Two rockets were also fired at a military checkpoint. No casualties were reported.
And in what police called a “foiled terrorist attempt,” two 11-pound anti-tank mines attached to a timing device and battery were found in a car in downtown Peshawar, said Abdul Majeed Marwat, police chief of the northwest’s largest city.
The car was parked in a crowded area front of military-affiliated Askari Bank when a small explosion and fire in the vehicle alerted authorities. Police speculated the timing device may have been misconnected.
The region along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan has seen increased activity by both local militants, the Taliban, and — according to a recent U.S. assessment — al-Qaida.
The mosque attack also set off peaceful protests across Pakistan Friday but they were smaller than anticipated.
In the northwest, an army brigade was heading up the Swat Valley, 75 miles northeast of Peshawar, where a suicide car bomber killed three policeman at a checkpoint Thursday, said Mohammed Javed, the valley’s top administrator.
With Saturday’s suicide attack in North Waziristan, at least 53 people have been killed in bombings and shootings in the north since the Red Mosque crisis began July 3.
No new troops were sent to North Waziristan, but a spokesman for militants demanded that all existing checkpoints be removed there by Sunday.
Abdullah Farhad, who claims to speak for pro-Taliban militants, told The Associated Press the checkpoints violated a 2006 peace accord between the government and tribal elders.
The peace deal is still in effect, but militants have again started attacking government forces in the region. The government has targeted some militant hideouts.