ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Thousands of troops were deployed to Pakistan’s northwestern frontier to try to dissuade outlawed Islamic militants from launching a holy war against the government for its bloody attack on a radical mosque, military officials said Saturday.
As the troop movements proceeded in at least five areas of the North West Frontier Province, a suicide bomber struck in another region of the border, his explosives-laden vehicle killing at least eight soldiers in a military convoy, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arhad said.
Local security officials said as many as 12 soldiers died and another 20 were wounded in the attack, while nearby two rockets believed to have been fired by militants landed near a military check point.
Elsewhere in the northwest, suspected militants detonated a bomb that struck a vehicle carrying soldiers in the town of Bannu, injuring two of them, said Mohammed Khan, an area police official.
The region along the Afghanistan border has seen increased activity by both local militants, the Taliban and, according to a recent U.S. assessment, the al-Qaeda terror network.
“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,” said a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He said there were no immediate plans for combat operations against Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric who has pressed for the imposition of Taliban-style rule in Pakistan, much like the leaders of the Red Mosque.
Pakistan troops overran the Islamabad mosque Wednesday following an eight-day siege with a hard-line cleric and his militant supporters that left more than 100 dead.
Fazlullah, who has close links to the outlawed Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, told supporters to prepare for jihad, or holy war, against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the assault, the official said.
The local Dawn newspaper quoted Interior Ministry secretary Syed Kamal Shah as saying Friday some women and children may have been among the 75 killed in the raid. Earlier the government said the only casualties were among the defending militants and attacking troops.
After nearly two weeks of tension and violence, life was returning to normal in Islamabad with authorities lifting a curfew imposed on areas near the Red Mosque.
Anti-Musharraf protests had erupted across Pakistan on Friday. One of the largest was in the eastern city of Lahore, where some 10,000 offered prayers for Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a radical cleric killed at the mosque.
But the rallies were smaller than expected, and there was no violent backlash from militant groups.
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.
Television footage showed army trucks, some pulling heavy artillery, lined up on a road in the area.
Asif Iqbal Daudzai, spokesman for the provincial government, said Fazlullah had broken an agreement to stop using FM radio broadcasts for anti-government agitation. If he does so again, security forces “will react,” Daudzai told Dawn News television.
Troops also were sent to Dera Ismail Khan, a town near the tribally governed Waziristan border region, a Taliban stronghold where Washington says al-Qaeda is regrouping.
Police said they raided a house in Dera Ismail Khan on Friday, arresting three suspected suicide bombers and seizing five explosives vests.
The military said it also deployed soldiers near Battagram, a northern town badly affected by a 2005 earthquake. According to aid workers and media reports, mobs broke off from a Thursday protest against the Red Mosque raid to loot and set fire to the offices of several international aid groups.
No fresh troops have been sent to North Waziristan, but a spokesman for militants demanded the existing military remove all checkpoints from the region by Sunday. Abdullah Farhad, who claims to speak for pro-Taliban militants, told The Associated Press the checkpoints violated a 2005 peace accord between the government and tribal elders.
Although the peace deal is still in effect, militants have again started attacking government forces in the region, while the government has targeted some militant hideouts.
The Saturday suicide attack occurred along a road near Daznaray, a village about 30 miles north of Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, said Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.
Two local security officials said the attack had killed 12 soldiers, with another 20 troops wounded. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their jobs, did not provide further details, saying authorities were investigating the incident.