Anti-Taliban cleric among 12 killed in Pakistan blasts (Third Lead)

June 12th, 2009 - 8:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, June 12 (DPA) A prominent cleric who supported the military offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat valley was killed Friday along with 11 other people in two separate mosque bombings in the militancy-plagued country, officials said.
The explosions came a day after security forces repulsed a militant raid on the residence of a regional army commander in the northwestern region, killing two attackers and arresting five after a shoot-out.

The cleric, Sarfraz Ahmad Naeemi, was in his office, adjacent to a mosque in the eastern city of Lahore, when a teenage suicide bomber entered the complex and blew himself up.

Chaudhry Shafeeq, Lahore’s senior superintendent of police operations, confirmed the death of the cleric and three other people in the bombing. Six people were injured, he said.

No one has accepted responsibility for the assassination. However, Naeemi, a moderate cleric, was a staunch critic of the Taliban and played an important role in turning public opinion in Pakistan against extremism and terrorism.

He was a vocal supporter of ongoing military operations against the Taliban in Swat and three neighbouring districts. He repeatedly issued fatwas, or religious rulings, to declare suicide attacks were against Islamic principles.

Separately, a huge explosion caused by a vehicular suicide bombing targeted a mosque in the Nowshera district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), said district police officer Abdullah Khan.

The blast killed at least eight people, including four soldiers, a provincial minister said, adding that most of the 100 injured were also believed to be troopers.

The mosque was located near a military ammunition depot and was regularly visited by the soldiers and officers.

Militants have recently stepped up attacks on security personnel and civilians to avenge the army assault that has killed more than 1,400 Taliban fighters in the Swat district of the NWFP and its adjoining tribal region.

“The government feared some retaliation from Taliban when it started Swat operation but the reaction that has come is much more intense than the expectations,” said Mehmood Shah, a security analyst and retired army brigadier.

“Perhaps some high profile Al Qaeda leaders are present in those areas where the military is carrying out actions and the terrorist organisation feels the operations as a threat to their existence. That might be the reason for this intense wave of attacks in Pakistan,” he added.

Among these attacks was a daring one in NWFP’s capital Peshawar, where gunmen tried to enter the residence of Lieutenant General Masood Aslam, the commander of the operation against the Taliban in the northwest.

Iftikhar Hussain, the provincial information minister, said the attack was fought off after a half-hour shoot-out that left two “terrorists” dead and five apprehended.

The raid was preceded by a coordinated attack on police in Peshawar. Two militants riding a motorbike hurled a hand grenade at a police van, slightly injuring one officer.

Minutes later, when additional officers reached the scene to investigate the incident, a suicide bomber ran forward and blew himself up among the police, senior police officer Mohammad Ijaz said.

Taliban militants have carried out more than a dozen attacks in Peshawar since late April, when government forces launched an operation in Swat and three neighbouring districts.

On Tuesday, a suicide bombing at the city’s five-star Pearl Continental Hotel killed 18 people, including two foreign staff members of the United Nations.

“The terrorists want to break us, but we will not be cowed by such action,” Hussain said.

Meanwhile, four policemen died when a police van was hit by a roadside bombing in Hangu district of NWFP, a police official said. Five more people were injured in the explosion.

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