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Indian, Pakistani Military Leaders Discuss Deadly Border Clashes

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD — Senior Indian and Pakistani military officials on Tuesday held their first official discussions since violence erupted along their disputed border last week, resulting in 20 deaths.
Pakistan’s director of military operations and his Indian counterpart used a regularly scheduled hotline call to discuss tensions along the boundary in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, according to Pakistani military sources who declined to discuss details of the conversation.
“Our military official conveyed Pakistan’s concerns to the Indian side,” one Pakistani official said, requesting anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the talks.
The phone call contributed to a sense that the crisis along the so-called Line of Control was easing on a day that neither side reported new violence. Each nation blames the other for unprovoked cross-border attacks on Oct. 5, sending thousands of villagers fleeing artillery rounds, mortar shells and machine gun fire.
Pakistan has accused India of committing 50 violations of a decade-long ceasefire this month and of targeting civilians in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, a charge that India dismissed.
The mountainous region is divided between the two countries along the Line of Control, but claimed in its entirety by both. The clashes last week marked one of the most significant flare-ups in the long-running border war since a 2003 cease-fire.
On Monday, Pakistan sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accusing India of “deliberate and unprovoked violations of the cease-fire agreement” and asking the U.N. to intervene in the crisis. India on Tuesday rejected the letter as a ploy and said that there was “no place for third parties” in resolving the border dispute.
“India will not accept violence on the border or the Line of Control, or continued terrorism against our citizens,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters in New Delhi. “It is up to Pakistan to de-escalate the situation.”
Indian security forces would “respond appropriately to any attempts by Pakistan to undermine peace and tranquillity,” Akbaruddin said.
The election of a new government in New Delhi this year, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had raised hopes of a fresh start in India-Pakistan relations. But Modi’s government called off bilateral talks scheduled for August after a senior Pakistani diplomat held meetings with Indian Kashmiri separatists, accusing Islamabad of interfering in its domestic affairs.
Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, said the Indian military’s cross-border firing had also caused extensive injuries and property damage and distracted from the Pakistani army’s ongoing counter-terrorism operation in the restive North Waziristan tribal region.

AFP Photo/A Majeed

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Malala Yousafzai’s Assailants Arrested In Pakistan, Army Says

By Aoun Abbas Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Military officials said Friday that they had apprehended 10 men who in 2012 attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist, and two other Pakistani schoolgirls.

A Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, said a joint operation involving the army, police, and intelligence services had arrested the entire gang involved in the attack, which the suspects said was ordered by the leader of the Pakistani Taliban militant organization, Mullah Fazlullah.

“They also admitted that if they did not get caught, they were supposed to attack at least 21 more people,” Bajwa told a news conference.

Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, quickly issued a statement calling the army’s account of the attack on the schoolgirls a “white lie.” The statement said three assailants were involved, with one of them now dead and the other two still alive. It provided no further details about those two alleged assailants.

Military officials offered few details of the operation except to say that the assailants were captured in the Malakand area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the militant-infested province where Malala — an outspoken advocate for girls’ education — was shot in the head as she was riding in a van to school in October 2012.

She was flown to Britain and underwent surgeries to reconstruct her skull and repair hearing loss.

Now 17, she has penned a bestselling memoir, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban,” won a host of international human rights awards, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and been feted in cities across the world.

Pakistani security officials said the taking of one attack suspect, Israrul Rehman, led to the arrests and confessions of the others. All the suspects were expected to be tried on terrorism charges.

Officials hailed the arrests as a breakthrough in Swat, the scenic valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhkwa where the army launched a major offensive against militants in 2009.

But residents of Swat were unconvinced, saying security has deteriorated in recent years amid a rash of targeted killings of local leaders by suspected Pakistani Taliban members.

“People in Swat would see it as a success when the culprits are brought to justice,” said Sardar Yusufzai, a leading lawyer and human rights activist in the valley who is not related to Malala. “In the past, dozens accused of target killings have been released from the courts on the basis of inadequate proof.”

Sahi is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Peter Muhly

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Pakistan Says No Insurgent Groups Will Be Spared In Its North Waziristan Offensive

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD — A six-week Pakistani army offensive has succeeded in disrupting the militant groups that have long enjoyed free rein in the rugged North Waziristan tribal region along the border with Afghanistan, Obama administration officials say.

But proof of the operation’s success, they say, will be whether groups such as the notorious Haqqani network are allowed to reconstitute themselves in North Waziristan or elsewhere and again plot attacks against U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Previous Pakistani offensives in the tribal belt have either ignored groups like the Haqqanis — who are blamed for deadly attacks against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan — or allowed them to return. U.S. military officials believe that top levels of Pakistan’s security establishment back the Haqqanis as a proxy force to maintain influence in Afghanistan.

But with most U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan at the end of the year, the U.S. military’s ability to battle the Haqqani network is expected to diminish sharply. Obama administration officials have pressed Pakistan’s military leaders in a series of meetings this month to ensure the group does not escape the current operation.

“We keep telling them they must go after all the terrorists and that they cannot cherry-pick,” said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. “We’ve been quite emphatic about that.”

Pakistan insists that no insurgent groups will be spared in the offensive, which began in mid-June and has resulted in the deaths of more than 500 militants and the seizure of large weapons caches and bomb-making factories, according to unconfirmed Pakistani army reports.

But some officials say that insurgents fled the area before the start of the offensive, which had been rumored for several months.

U.S. officials have not received photographs or other visual evidence from Pakistan showing it has directly targeted the Haqqani network. In the end, the senior U.S. official said, “We end up having a good conversation but the bottom line is we have to be convinced there is no reconstituting of terrorist facilities and safe havens.”

Some analysts believe that Pakistan is taking action now because of a provision in the 2015 Pentagon budget that could withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in counter-terrorism funding unless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certifies that Pakistan has “significantly disrupted the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network.”

Now that they have begun such an operation, “the Pakistanis are making an argument in Washington that they should be given continued coalition support,” C. Christine Fair, author of “Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War,” told the Times of India in an interview this week. Pakistan has received $28 billion in U.S. military and economic aid since 2002, and additional expenditures would be “outrageous,” she said.

Pakistan has not given a timetable for the offensive, which began with airstrikes and has proceeded to ground operations in Miram Shah and Mir Ali, the largest towns in North Waziristan, which are now mostly controlled by the military.

Pakistani officials declined to comment specifically on the Haqqani network, which analysts regard as one of the most experienced insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan. The group, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, is under the umbrella of the Afghan Taliban but is seen as being more closely linked to al-Qaida’s central leadership.

U.S. military leaders have long believed that Pakistan did not target the Haqqani network before because it does not carry out attacks in Pakistan. Afghan authorities also accuse Pakistan of sparing the Haqqani network in the current offensive, arguing that no senior commander in the group has been reported killed.

Last week, a spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, alleged that Pakistan’s security establishment had shifted Haqqani fighters to safe places before the operation began, prompting swift denials from Pakistani officials.

At a news conference the next day, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Afghanistan, whose army is struggling to contain a domestic Taliban insurgency, should take action against militants fleeing over the border from Pakistan.

“It is … our expectation that action would be taken on the Afghan side to check the fleeing terrorists and not to allow Afghan territory to be used by anti-Pakistan elements,” Chaudhry said.

AFP Photo/Rizwan Tabassum

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Pakistan’s Busiest Airport Attacked For Second Time This Week

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s busiest airport came under attack Tuesday for the second time this week when assailants riding a motorbike sprayed bullets at a camp used by security forces and escaped.

A heavy contingent of Pakistani soldiers were searching for the attackers in slums near the sprawling port city of Karachi’s airport, which again briefly suspended all flights.

No casualties were reported and the attackers did not breach the gate of the security facility, but the incident underscored the worsening security crisis in Pakistan barely two days after heavily armed militants stormed an auxiliary terminal at the airport and engaged in an hours-long firefight with security forces that left 36 people dead, including 10 attackers.

After a 28-hour search-and-rescue operation, at least seven bodies were recovered early Tuesday from the airport’s cold-storage facility, where the victims had taken shelter during the siege.

The Pakistani Taliban, a banned militant organization, claimed responsibility for both attacks and has vowed to unleash more violence in response to government airstrikes on its hideouts in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas.

The Pakistani military has stepped up its air campaign in recent months as a bid to open peace talks with the militants has collapsed. Early Tuesday, Pakistani air force jets bombed nine insurgent hideouts in the Khyber Agency tribal area, killing 25 militants, according to officials.

The military wouldn’t immediately comment on whether the airstrikes were in retaliation for the Sunday night attack on the airport. The area that was bombarded, the remote Tirah Valley, has traditionally been a haven for other armed groups besides the Pakistani Taliban, but analysts say that the swirling mix of militants and allegiances in northeast Pakistan is growing even more chaotic.

The attacks in Karachi have been a show of strength by the Pakistani Taliban, a traditionally loose federation of militant groups united by their opposition to the central government in Islamabad.

The group had appeared to be on its heels in recent days after the defection of a leading commander, the assassination of another and the government’s June 6 announcement of a 15-day deadline for militants to withdraw from the North Waziristan tribal area ahead of an expected military operation.

With Sunday’s attack, which forced the closure of Pakistan’s busiest airport and sent shudders through a city that many had thought was accustomed to militant violence, analysts say powerful factions inside the Pakistani Taliban are trying to warn the government against opting for military action. The assailants who raided the airport Sunday night included fighters from Uzbekistan, security officials said, indicating that the insurgent group had reached into its well of highly trained foreign jihadists to carry out a signature attack.

“What they are trying to demonstrate is the Taliban movement has enough capability and capacity to challenge the state anywhere it likes,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent security analyst based in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

“Therefore, if Pakistan decides to go for military action in the tribal areas, then they should be prepared to face the consequences, which is retaliation by the Taliban.”

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power last year with strong support from Islamist voters, many of whom are sympathetic to the Pakistani Taliban, has ignored the wishes of powerful army generals and sought to negotiate with the insurgents instead of bombard them. The seven-month-long effort to begin peace talks has made little progress, however, and Sharif is under growing pressure to mount a major military operation as violence increases, particularly in Pakistan’s crowded cities.

Many analysts believe that the Pakistani Taliban will gain more breathing room after the end of the year, when U.S.-led NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan end their combat mission, possibly easing pressure on the Afghan Taliban and giving them more freedom of movement along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Pakistani Taliban is an operationally distinct organization but the two groups are ideological allies.

Yet Sharif’s government remains plainly conflicted about launching an offensive. In statements, he and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan condemned the Sunday night attack on the airport but did not criticize the Pakistani Taliban.

“The civilian government still hasn’t made up its mind, but ultimately they will be forced by the circumstances to overcome their ideological inhibitions” and take stronger military action, Rizvi said.

AFP Photo/Rizwan Tabassum

Attackers Storm Pakistan Airport, Killing 13

By Aoun Sahi and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Ten heavily armed attackers stormed the international airport in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, late Sunday night, prompting an hours-long gun battle that left 13 people dead before the assailants were killed, officials said.

Pakistani security forces declared the siege of Jinnah International Airport over about 4:30 a.m., five hours after the first sounds of gunfire and explosions sent travelers running for safety. Officials said that army soldiers killed the 10 attackers and that a large fire in one building was extinguished.

Just after dawn Monday, Pakistani forces conducted a precautionary sweep of the airport and declared that it would be cleared to resume flight operations by midday, said Asim Bajwa, spokesman for Pakistani security forces.

Pakistani news organizations said 13 people were killed in the attack, including security personnel and at least one employee of Pakistan International Airlines, the state-run carrier. Passengers and airline staff were evacuated just after the attack began.

The siege shocked a nation that has become accustomed to brazen terrorist assaults on its major cities. No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out coordinated attacks on military and civilian targets in recent months in what it has called retaliation for Pakistani strikes on its hide-outs in the country’s tribal areas.

Television news reports suggested that a parked plane was on fire, but officials said the blaze turned out to be in a nearby building. Bajwa said that “all vital assets (were) intact.”

Police officials said the attackers, who were wearing masks, airport security uniforms and large backpacks, raided the airport from three sides in a coordinated assault shortly before midnight, hurling hand grenades and firing heavy weapons. Authorities recovered rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry.

Pakistani army troops and commandos surrounded the airport as civil aviation authorities issued an alert to all air facilities in the country. All flights into and out of Karachi were suspended.

Bajwa said that Pakistani forces cornered the attackers in two parts of the airport and “eliminated them.” Witnesses and social media accounts reported that firing could still be heard well into Monday morning.

“A heavy contingent of security officials are deputed to ensure security of passengers,” Munir Sheikh, a senior police official in Karachi, told the Los Angeles Times.

Eyewitnesses said the attackers were wearing suicide vests and carrying heavy ammunition.

“They entered the airport and started firing straight at the security officials. We hid just to save ourselves,” one young man told Pakistan’s Express News channel.

Another witness, an employee of a private company at the airport, told the channel that three of the attackers “looked like Uzbeks and Chinese. They were not local. They were wearing suicide jackets and had a lot of ammunition with them. They went toward the runway while firing.”

The channel did not identify the witnesses.

The gunmen entered the airport through the old terminal, which is generally used by charter flights and passengers embarking on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The airport, Pakistan’s busiest, is used by international carriers including Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways, and several Pakistani and regional carriers.

Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, has long been a target of militant attacks. A cease-fire between the government and the Pakistani Taliban, a federation of insurgent groups, expired in April after a failed bid to launch peace talks.

“Only organizations like al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban have the capability to carry out such attacks, and both have a presence in Karachi,” said a security official in Karachi who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

In a separate incident Sunday, suicide bombers attacked a hotel where Shiite Muslim pilgrims were staying in the volatile Baluchistan province, killing at least 23 people, according to provincial officials. No group claimed responsibility in that incident either, although attacks on minority Shiites in Baluchistan have often been carried out by sectarian militias that are distinct from the Pakistani Taliban.

AFP Photo