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Cease-fire is over, say Pakistani militants

Special to The Times

With more than 70 people killed in weekend bombings and a controversial cease-fire annulled in Pakistan’s volatile frontier zone, the specter loomed Sunday of an all-out war between Islamic militants and the U.S.-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf.

In the latest suicide attack, a bomber blew himself up Sunday at a police recruitment center near Pakistan’s tribal region, killing at least 26 people and injuring nearly 60 others.

The violence comes on the heels of last week’s government storming of a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad, a clash that left more than 100 people dead.

On Sunday, militants in North Waziristan, one of the tribal areas, announced they were scrapping a 10-month-old cease-fire accord with the government. That deal was already in tatters and had been widely criticized since its inception, but the militants’ decision to end it indicated they wanted no impediment to an all-out fight with government forces.

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The turmoil has heightened speculation that Musharraf, who is also the chief of Pakistan’s military, might cite the growing threat posed by militants as justification for declaring a state of emergency and putting off elections scheduled for this year.

Before the mosque raid, Musharraf had been under pressure from a grass-roots democracy movement to renounce his army post and allow free and fair balloting. But public sentiment indicated support for his decision to use force on those holed up inside the mosque, which had become the center of a vigilante-style, anti-vice campaign.

That support has given the Pakistani leader something of a respite from the previous political crisis, but it also plunged him into what is shaping up as his government’s most serious confrontation in years with militant groups. The groups have enjoyed the longtime patronage of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment although Musharraf aligned his government with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Islamic militant groups, most of them based in the lawless region bordering Afghanistan, have vowed to avenge the assault on the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.

But the frontier zone has long been the focus of U.S. intelligence concerns about the regrouping and rearming of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements.

The Bush administration, which has expressed support for Musharraf during the mosque raid and months of democracy protests, offered new backing Sunday on his deployment of thousands of troops in and near the tribal areas.

“We are supporting that effort to get control of the situation,” national security advisor Stephen Hadley said on ABC’s “This Week,” citing the threat posed by militants who find sanctuary in the borderlands.

Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden praised “martyrdom” in a video posted on a militant website over the weekend.

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The attack on the recruitment center occurred in Dera Ismail Khan in North-West Frontier Province, which borders the South Waziristan tribal region, also a militant stronghold. The police are in the midst of a recruiting drive, and witnesses said the center was packed with job applicants taking written examinations and having medical checkups.

Trouble had been expected in Dera Ismail Khan, where three would-be suicide bombing suspects were arrested Friday. Authorities also seized an explosives-laden car.

The powerful explosion left the recruiting center’s main reception area littered with charred corpses and groaning wounded. About half the dead were police officers and the remainder new recruits, authorities said.

Militants on Sunday issued fresh threats against police in the tribal areas, ordering them not to cooperate with the thousands of army and paramilitary forces deployed in the border zone after the Red Mosque raid.

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Hours before the attack on the recruitment center, militants staged a sophisticated, multi-pronged assault on a military convoy traveling in the mountainous district of Swat, which lies in the North-West Frontier Province. The province also borders Afghanistan.

The convoy was hit near the town of Matta by two suicide bombers and a roadside bomb, military officials said. At least 18 people were killed and 48 hurt, including about seven civilians.

The force of the explosion shattered vehicles and destroyed half a dozen homes. Television footage showed bloodstained helmets amid the wreckage.

Security forces sealed off the area. Helicopter gunships hovered overhead, and residents said sporadic firing continued for hours afterward.

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Until recently, the Swat district had been relatively quiet even though it was known to be a base for forces aligned with a radical mullah, Maulana Fazlullah. The militant leader, speaking Sunday on an illegally operated radio station, said he was going into hiding.

After the mosque raid, he had called on followers to wage war against the government.

The convoy attack was the second in as many days in the frontier zone. On Saturday, at least 26 soldiers were killed and more than 50 hurt in a suicide attack on their convoy north of Miram Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area.

Under the now-defunct truce between the government and tribal elders in North Waziristan, the Pakistani army had pulled troops back to their barracks. In exchange, the militants were supposed to have halted cross-border attacks against foreign troops in Afghanistan and also to have expelled foreign militants in their midst, but they failed to do so.

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Militants had given government forces until Sunday to withdraw from several newly reestablished checkpoints in the Waziristan region, but that demand went unheeded.

Musharraf was accused by critics at home and abroad of appeasing the militants with the pact. However, there were indications his administration might try to negotiate another accord.

The government called a jirga, or conference, for today in Peshawar, the provincial capital. Tribal elders, senior clerics and government officials were to attend.

king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.


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