LAHORE, Pakistan, (Reuters) – A prominent anti-Taliban Muslim cleric who condemned suicide bombings was killed on Friday in a suicide attack in the Pakistani city of Lahore, police said.
In another blast at around the same time, a suicide car-bomber set off explosives in an attack on a mosque in the northwestern town of Nowshera, killing at least four people, police said.
The blasts came as Pakistani forces stepped up attacks on militants across the northwest after the U.S. House of Representatives approved tripling aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for the next five years.
Security forces have made progress in more than a month of fighting against Taliban militants in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, and in recent days have begun operations in several other parts of the region. The militants have responded with a series of bomb attacks.
Moderate cleric Sarfraz Naeemi was attacked at his office at his mosque complex after leading Friday prayers. Three people including Naeemi were killed and 11 wounded, top city administrator Sajjad Bhutta told reporters.
The young attacker posed as a religious student and avoided police checks at the main gate of Naeemi’s complex. “He came through a small door that opens onto a side alley and entered the office in the guise of a disciple,” Bhutta said.
In the garrison town of Nowshera, in North West Frontier Province, four people were killed and more than 20 were wounded when a car-bomber attacked a mosque next to an army depot.
Rising Islamist violence has raised fears for Pakistan’s stability and for the safety of its nuclear arsenal but the offensive in Swat has reassured the United States about its commitment to the global campaign against militancy.
Pakistan is a vital ally of the United States as it struggles to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan and defeat al Qaeda.
U.S. officials said on Thursday insurgent violence in Afghanistan had accelerated sharply alongside the arrival of new U.S. troops, reaching its highest level since 2001.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta said he believed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan and he hoped joint operations with Pakistani forces would find him.
The offensive in Swat has broad public support and the bombs in response appear to be hardening opinion against the militants.
Naeemi was an outspoken critic of suicide attacks which he said were un-Islamic.
“The military must eliminate the Taliban once and for all,” Naeemi told Reuters last month. “Otherwise they will capture the entire country which would be a big catastrophe.”
The two bombs unnerved investors in Pakistani stocks and the main index ended 0.46 percent down at 7,059.48.
Police in Bannu, a town in North West Frontier Province adjacent to the North Waziristan militant stronghold on the Afghan border, said the military had fired artillery through the night at militant positions in the Jani Kheil area.
More than 130 militants have been killed in the fighting near Bannu this week up to Thursday, according to military officers and a senior civilian official in the area.
Independent casualty estimates for the fighting in Bannu and other parts of the northwest were not available.
Gunship helicopters also attacked militants in the Bajaur and Mohmand regions on the Afghan border, both to the north of the city of Peshawar, military officials and residents said. There has also been fighting this week in the South Waziristan and Orakzai ethnic Pashtun tribal regions.
In Swat, the military said 39 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in a fierce clash in Chuprial village.
Analysts said the flurry of army attacks appeared aimed at keeping the militants bottled up and distracted. Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters in Beijing security forces were trying to stop militants regrouping outside Swat.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved tripling aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for the next five years in a key part of a strategy to combat extremism with economic and social development.
Pakistan is now the biggest recipient of U.S. aid.
The fighting in Swat and other parts of the northwest has displaced about 2.5 million people and aid officials have appealed to donors to step up their help.