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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Foreign embassies alerted: Pakistan faces fresh threat of militant attack
AFP, IslamabadPakistan strengthened security in the capital Islamabad on Friday amid fresh threats of attack following a recent upsurge in deadly Islamist violence and suicide bombings, police said.Embassies restricted movements of their staff and sent out advisory notices to citizens over fears of a possible copycat attack in the style of last November's siege in the Indian financial capital Mumbai.The US embassy said that "due to heightened security" routine consular services were suspended in Islamabad on Friday but that staff were "continuing to provide emergency services to any American citizens that require them."We advised embassy staff to avoid restaurants, hotels, shopping centres and other public places," embassy spokesman Lou Fintor told AFP.State media reported that a meeting between school staff and council officials agreed to install special gates and CCTV cameras at entry and exit points of schools, and to control traffic outside the buildings. "There is a high alert," senior police officer Nematullah Kundi told AFP. "We have stepped up security in the city, in and around the diplomatic enclave and the area near the parliament building, which is the declared Red Zone," he said."Extra guards have also been deployed at schools in the Red Zone and elsewhere in the city," said the officer, who deals with security in Islamabad. Television footage showed police vehicles dropping concrete slabs on major roads to block the entry of any suspicious vehicles into the Red Zone. Special walk-through gates have been installed at key government buildings where visitors are scanned before allowing them entry, they said. Attacks by extremists who are outraged that Pakistan joined the US-led "war on terror" have killed more than 1,700 people across the country since government forces besieged a radical mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.The United States has put the nuclear-armed Muslim nation at the heart of efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda.Much of the violence has been concentrated in northwest Pakistan, where the army has been fighting hardline Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists. Hundreds of Islamists snuck into the country's lawless tribal belt after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.Pakistan's central province of Punjab, which surrounds Islamabad, has recently witnessed an increase in attacks targeting security and government installations and places of worship, killing dozens of people. There have also been three deadly suicide bombings in the wider Islamabad area in just over three weeks. Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who has a five-million-dollar US bounty on his head, has vowed to unleash attacks to avenge suspected US missile strikes against militants in Pakistan.Meanwhile, the hard-line Muslim cleric who has mediated peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban in the Swat Valley packed up and left the northwestern district Thursday, angrily denouncing the president for failing to sign off on imposing Islamic law in the area.Sufi Muhammad's departure imperils a fragile cease-fire between militants and security forces that brought a tense calm to the valley after months of bloodletting but also alarmed Western leaders who want Pakistan to eradicate al-Qaida and Taliban havens.The potential for a return to violence in Swat comes as nuclear-armed Pakistan faces unrest well beyond its northwest tribal regions, where militants are believed to have bases from which they plan attacks on U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.Late Thursday, the U.S. Embassy said "heightened security" concerns had prompted it to suspend routine consular services Friday in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, where a recent suicide attack killed eight people. Spokesman Lou Fintor said consulates in other major cities would be open and emergency services were still available for Americans in the capital.In the southwestern Baluchistan region, meanwhile, deadly protests erupted following the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three missing political dissidents - killings that activists immediately blamed on Pakistan's intelligence agencies.Thanks in part to Muhammad's mediation in Swat, an agreement worked out in February ended 18 months of terrorism and bloody clashes that killed hundreds and forced up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people to flee.Imposing Islamic law in the one-time tourist haven was the key plank of the pact between the province's government and Muhammad.Some judges trained in Islamic law have already started hearing cases in Swat, but Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has declined to sign the order allowing such courts until peace is restored. He hasn't given specifics on what that means.Taliban fighters in Swat have retained their weapons. This week, they pushed into the neighboring area of Buner and engaged in deadly firefights with unwelcoming tribesmen and police.Muhammad had been camped out in the valley's main town of Mingora with hundreds of black-turbaned supporters. On Thursday, dozens of his supporters crammed into a column of cars and trucks and drove out of the city.The cleric said they were unhappy with Zardari's "negative attitude.""From now on, President Zardari will be responsible for any situation in Swat," Muhammad told reporters. "The provincial government is sincere, and our agreement with the provincial government is intact, but we are ending our peace camp."Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province's information minister, said he believed the federal government supports the peace effort, but he couldn't say when the Islamic law bill might be signed.

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