Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Renewed clashes leave at least 53 dead in Pakistan

BLOODSHED Three civilians were caught in the crossfire between soldiers and al-Qaeda-linked fighters, while a top general was ambushed in an upmarket beach suburb

AFP , KARACHI

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers guard their bunker on the outskirts of Wana, the main town of Pakistan's Waziristan tribal region, yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Pakistan reeled from an upsurge in violence by Islamic militants yesterday after bloodshed erupted again in Karachi and troops clashed twice with al-Qaeda-linked fighters in tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden may be hiding.

Thirty-five foreign militants and 15 troops were killed in gunbattles near the northwestern tribal town of Wana on Wednesday, the military revealed yesterday. Three civilians were also killed in the crossfire, raising the toll to at least 53.

The clashes marked the first eruption of fighting between troops and al-Qaeda-linked combatants since the army wound down a major offensive late March after losing 46 troops, and opened talks by offering amnesty to them if they agreed to register and lay down arms. They have refused to register.

Down on the Arabian Sea coast, one of the army's top generals, Karachi corps commander Lieutenant General Ahsan Saleem Hayat, survived a brazen attack on his convoy on Thursday as he was driven to work through an upmarket beach suburb.

Gunmen sprayed his convoy with bullets, killing seven soldiers, three policemen and a pedestrian.

The military said the attack was a clear bid to kill the commander.

It is the first time a senior military figure -- other than President Pervez Musharraf -- has been directly attacked in Pakistan and marked a turn in the kind of violence which has riven Karachi for decades and intensified over the past month.

"It is now the leadership of the institution the militants are targetting. It is certainly a new dimension and a more serious one," a senior security official told reporters, pointing out that most attacks in Karachi have been religious, ethnic, political or anti-Western in nature.

Hayat is one of the Pakistani army's 11 corps commanders, who fall directly under the army chief and deputy chief.

The strike on his convoy was the sixth deadly attack in Karachi in just over a month.

Two devastating suicide bomb attacks on mosques packed with worshippers from the Shiite Muslim minority, the assassination of a senior cleric from the Sunni Muslim majority, a double car bomb attack near the US consul general's residence, a parcel bomb at the port and three days of riots left 51 dead.

Pakistan's commercial capital is a hotbed of Islamic extremists and its crowded apartment blocks have been used as hideouts by several senior al-Qaeda fugitives, including alleged Sept. 11 terror attack planners Ramzi bin al-Shaibah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

Law enforcers see the upsurge in violence as a gang war between police and militants, following a series of arrests of hardline Islamic extremists linked to attempts to kill Musharraf as well as suicide attacks in 2002.

But some officials said it could be connected to the army's renewed offensive against al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the northwest.

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