INTERVIEW
 
Taliban bomber kills 2 troops in Pakistani Kashmir
Associated Press
June 26, 2009
ISLAMABAD — A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up near an army vehicle Friday, killing at least two soldiers in the first such assault in Pakistan's part of divided Kashmir, marking an escalation in the militant campaign against security forces.

The military said in a statement that three other soldiers were wounded in the early morning bombing in Muzaffarabad, the region's capital, and rushed to a nearby hospital.

Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, told The Associated Press that the assault was launched to prove that Mehsud had not been weakened by more than a week of strikes on his suspected hideouts in his tribal homeland in northwestern Pakistan.

"We are in a position to respond to the army's attacks, and time will prove that these military operations have not weakened us," Hakimullah Mehsud told The Associated Press by telephone.

Pakistan's military is thought to be softening up targets in South Waziristan in preparation for a ground offensive aimed at eliminating the Taliban leader.

In the latest attack, warplanes bombed two militant targets in the villages of Ladha and Makeen—Mehsud's hometown — killing 10 people and wounding 15, two intelligence officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Hakimullah Mehsud said no militants were killed, "just one elderly innocent citizen."

Baitullah Mehsud has also been the target of suspected U.S. missile attacks. Earlier this week, he narrowly escaped a drone strike in Makeen in South Waziristan, a rugged, lawless region along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, that killed 80 people.

Mehsud's group has been blamed for a series of deadly attacks in Pakistan to avenge military operations against Taliban militants in the volatile northwest region.

Although Pakistan has witnessed scores of such attacks in recent months, Friday's blast was the first in its portion of Kashmir and marks a broadening of Mehsud's anti-government campaign.

Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst, said Mehsud likely struck in Kashmir "to make it more difficult for the military in South Waziristan by spreading out the conflict."

Ishtiaq Ahmad, an expert on terrorism and regional security at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, said the Kashmir attack was the latest move in what has emerged as a showdown between Mehsud and the military.

"In the past two months, each side has been raising the stakes," Ahmad said. "Battles lines are increasingly being drawn now, and the physical extermination of the enemy has been clearly outlined."

For 20 years, India has accused Pakistan of harboring Islamic militants in Kashmir and helping them sneak across the boundary into its part of Kashmir to launch attacks on Indian security forces. Pakistan denies the allegations.

Pakistani armed forces have been bombing and shelling militant targets in South Waziristan for almost two weeks and says it is preparing for an operation to rout Mehsud.

In the government's latest attack, warplanes bombed two militant targets in the villages of Ladha and Makeen — Mehsud's hometown — killing 10 people and wounding 15, two intelligence officials told the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Hakimullah Mehsud said no militants were killed, "just one elderly innocent citizen."

Baitullah Mehsud has also been the target of suspected U.S. missile attacks. Earlier this week, he narrowly escaped a drone strike in his hometown in Makeen South Waziristan that officials said killed 80 people.

Eliminating Mehsud and his estimated 12,000 loyal fighters will be no easy task for Pakistan's military, which has been humbled by the Taliban leader in the past. And any ground operation, is expected to be a much tougher fight than the one in Swat.

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