Pakistan’s most wanted militant on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a deadly police academy assault and threatened to attack the US capital in retaliation for a series of air strikes.
Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, for whom the United States has posted a five-million-dollar reward, said there would be more attacks after Monday’s raid on the Lahore police training school which left 12 people dead.
“We claim responsibility for the attack,” Mehsud, blamed for the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“This was in retaliation for the ongoing drone attacks in the tribal areas. There will be more such attacks.”
“Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world,” Mehsud warned.
Seven cadets, a civilian and four attackers died in Monday’s raid on the police academy in eastern city Lahore, sparking fears that unrest is seeping out of the tribal badlands and into the heart of Pakistan.
Assailants armed with guns, grenades and suicide vests shot their way into the academy in the morning, unleashing eight hours of gun battles until they were overpowered by security forces.
Mehsud, who was accused by the former government of masterminding Bhutto’s killing, heads the feared Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The US State Department has branded him a “key Al-Qaeda facilitator” in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
Mehsud said he had set up a council of mujahedeen (holy warriors) grouping different groups “to step up attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.”
He dismissed the US reward for his arrest.
“The maximum they can do is martyr me,” he said. “We will exact our revenge on them from inside America.”
Mehsud’s group is influential in both North and South Waziristan, as well as in the Bajaur tribal district to the north, which Pakistani security forces said they had effectively cleared last month following a major offensive.
He commands thousands of fighters across the tribal areas on the Afghan border, although official estimates vary on the precise number. His capacity for launching attacks outside the region is questionable.
At least 35 US drone strikes have killed over 340 people in Pakistan since August last year.
The US military does not usually confirm such attacks, but its armed forces and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only ones to deploy drones in the region.
In Lahore, interrogators questioned dozens of people over the assault. Punjab province’s police chief Khalid Farooq said 50 had been picked up.
“These people will now be interrogated,” he added. “Things are moving in a positive direction but it is too early to say who was involved.”
A bearded man — who interior ministry chief Rehman Malik said was Afghan — was arrested for allegedly trying to attack police outside the compound.
Chief suspects for the attack are homegrown Islamist groups or Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants holed up in the tribal areas.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at an international conference on Afghanistan Tuesday, backed plans for reconciliation talks with members of the Taliban or past Al-Qaeda supporters who reject violence.
“They should be offered an honourable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society, if they are willing to abandon violence, break with Al-Qaeda, and support the constitution,” she said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemned Monday’s attack near Lahore and pledged international help to root out the extremist threat.
Lahore was also the setting for the March 3 gun attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team which left eight Pakistanis dead.