(CNSNews.com) – As Pakistan reeled from back-to-back terrorist attacks Thursday, the provincial government -- which earlier this year negotiated a “peace” agreement with local Taliban extremists -- tried a new tack, placing “dead or alive” bounties on Taliban leaders’ heads.
The North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) government announced the rewards one day after a massive bomb and gunfire attack targeting police and intelligence service buildings killed at least 30 people and wounded 250 in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and the capital of Punjab province.
Hours after the bounty announcement, terrorists struck again – first in a marketplace in the NWFP capital, Peshawar, then at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, and still later in Dera Ismail Khan, a NWFP town about 180 miles to the south. At least 13 people were killed in the three attacks.
The Pakistan Taliban umbrella group Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) had earlier claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack, saying it was in retaliation for a continuing military offensive against militants in Swat and other districts of the NWFP and the adjoining Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The TTP promised more mayhem. A spokesman calling himself Hakimullah Mehsud told the BBC by phone that the group was “politely” asking the citizens of four major cities – Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Multan – to evacuate because it had identified government targets there for attack.
Islamabad is the national capital; nearby Rawalpindi is the seat of army headquarters; Multan in central Punjab, the seventh biggest city in the country, also houses army and air force bases.
Thursday’s attacks bring to more than 500 the number of people killed in more than 215 terrorist bombings in Pakistan this year alone, according to records kept by the South Asian Terrorism Portal in New Delhi.
Last February, the NWFP reached an agreement with Swat-based TTP leaders, permitting them to enforce Islamic (shari’a) law in the area, in return for an end to a campaign of violence there.
As they had when earlier deals were struck, U.S. and NATO officials warned that the agreement would strengthen the position of militants both in the frontier areas and across the border in Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to send 17,000 more troops this year. The TTP has sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban head Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
When TTP fighters moved beyond Swat into surrounding NWFP districts, Islamabad – under growing pressure from Washington – launched the military offensive in late April.
The bounties offered by the NWFP authorities on Thursday are for 21 TTP figures, led by the radical Swat-based cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who carries a reward of five million rupees (around $62,300). Others include Muslim Khan, a spokesman for Fazlullah who frequently gives media interviews.
The Pakistan military this week released a recording of a phone conversation purportedly between Khan and an unidentified militant, in which Khan is heard to urge attacks against children in Pakistan’s most populous province.
“There’s need that they should strike soldiers in Punjab so that they understand and feel pain,” Khan says in Pashto. “Strikes should be carried out on their homes so their kids get killed and then they’ll realize.”
Khan now has a reward of three million rupees (about ($37,400) on his head. In the poster offering the bounty, the NWFP government quoted a verse from the Koran translated as “Don’t spread anarchy on the land.”
“Can the people who deprived mothers, sisters and daughters of their roofs and rendered them homeless in their own country be called Muslim and patriotic Pakistanis?” the poster asked.
“Such people are indeed killers of humanity and deserve punishment.”
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a private television station that the terrorists wreaking havoc in Swat and elsewhere had nothing to do with Islam and should not even be called Muslims.
The TTP’s overall leader, Baitullah Mehsud, is not one of those listed as wanted by the NWFP government. Mehsud, who is believed to be based in the FATA rather then NWFP, has a U.S. reward of up to $5 million on his head.
The ongoing offensive has killed more than 1,200 militants, according to the Pakistan government, while 80 military personnel had been killed.
Since May 2, the NWFP government says 2.3 million people have fled the fighting; the U.N. refugee agency says it is registering an average of 126,000 displaced people every day.
Retired former chief of staff of the Indian Army, Gen. Ved Prakash Malik, said the Pakistani military offensive was risky either way.
“A Taliban setback in Swat may produce a reverse effect in the neighboring tribal areas and serve as a catalyst for binding together the loose confederation of militants operating in FATA and thus produce a more united fighting force,” he said in an analysis for the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“On the other hand, a Taliban victory in Swat, or even a stalemate, will be an unmitigated disaster for Pakistan,” Malik said. “My experience is that such operations tend to suck in troops. It takes years, sometimes decades, to bring about normalcy.”