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South Punjab – Pakistan’s ‘new zone of militancy’

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* Poverty-stricken, extremely feudal and illiterate south Punjab can be possible shelter for Taliban, other jihadi outfits

LAHORE: Fears are growing that Pakistan’s militant threat may be extending deep into the country, far beyond the Afghan border region, BBC has reported.

Extremist groups linked with Al Qaeda are believed to be making in-roads into Punjab.

Abdul Razaq, a villager from south Punjab, had one thing left after the explosion which consumed half his village and claimed 17 lives. What remained intact was a single wooden chair. His house, his livestock and most of his family were gone.

When the blast ripped through his hometown on July 13, he was flung into the branches of a tree.

After regaining consciousness, he started digging through the rubble for his children, who had been playing in the yard. He located them three houses away.

“We found one of my sons beheaded,” he said, running both hands along the sides of his neck. “I collapsed when I saw his body. My other son was alive for a few moments and then stopped breathing. When we dug out my daughter, she was already dead.”

The explosion in his village was one of a series of brutal wake-up calls about the growing militant threat in south Punjab.

Senior police officers, independent analysts and militants in custody suggest that southern Punjab could be Pakistan’s next battleground. Internal police documents also paint a picture of a province at risk.

Poverty-stricken: One report states that the poverty-stricken, extremely feudal and increasing illiterate south of Punjab could possibly provide shelter to the Taliban and other jihadi outfits. It has the potential of becoming a nursery or a major centre for sectarian recruitment.

Some experts argue that it has already reached that point. One describes it as a “factory for suicide bombers”.

Police say Al Qaeda has access to a labour pool via the banned sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), among others.

Al-Qaeda is operating as a parasitic presence on a loose network of militant groups in Punjab, according to Azmat Abbas, an analyst who has been tracking militancy for years.

Police in the town of Sargodha confirm that Al Qaeda, operating under the banner of the Punjabi Taliban, is the main enemy they face.

They have managed to crack several militant cells this year, arresting more than 30 suspects, including alleged masterminds and financiers.

“We have made a dent,” said District Police Officer Usman Anwar.

“They are on the run, looking for hideouts. Our raids have stopped recruitment for the future. The heroes they worshipped are now in jail.”

Several of those arrested in recent months were not even on police radar screens – such as the man who blew up Abdul Razaq’s village. He was a respected local schoolteacher.

“He was just like a brother,” a villager said. “He was born here and educated here. How could we know what he was doing at home?”

The man who admits that he is to blame for the blast is linked with militants fighting in Afghanistan. He said he was storing explosives for them. When asked if he ever thought of the friends and neighbours he had killed, he wept as he replied.

“I am ready to go on my knees and beg forgiveness from everyone affected,” he said.

“I pray the dead rest in peace. Had I known what would happen I would never have kept the explosives. I am grieving because I made such a big mistake and so many people died.”

But he said he would have been happy if his explosives had killed British and American forces in Afghanistan.

“I would have been very happy,” he said. “If God gives me a chance in the future I will go and fight the Americans and the British.”

The schoolteacher said he was trained at a militant camp in Afghanistan in 1998, but never fought there. He stressed that in those days jihadis had the government’s support.\10\11\story_11-10-2009_pg1_10

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