Grief and fear as Pakistan mourns military dead

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan Sat Dec 5, 2009 8:24pm IST

Security forces hover over the site of a mosque attack, where military officials were taking part in Friday prayers, near army barracks in Rawalpindi on December 4, 2009. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

Security forces hover over the site of a mosque attack, where military officials were taking part in Friday prayers, near army barracks in Rawalpindi on December 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mian Khursheed

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RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan on Saturday mourned those killed near the country's military headquarters in an attack that raised serious questions over how militants penetrated the security of the regional nuclear power.

As Pakistan battles Taliban insurgents who have responded to offensives with bombings that have killed hundreds since October, it also faces U.S. pressure to root out militants who cross the border to fight Western troops in Afghanistan.

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a mosque and two other militants opened fire on worshippers in the garrison town of Rawalpindi on Friday, after easily entering what should be one of the most secure areas in Pakistan.

Retired colonel Shukran Rafiq's three sons were in the mosque and one of them was killed. Reflecting on his loss, he said his 14-year-old son died for a good cause. "My son was martyred," he said at the funeral.

Ministers and military leaders, including army chief Ashfaq Kiyani, attended the funerals in Rawalpindi and local television stations showed them paying their respects.

Authorities were not taking any chances at the funerals. Even relatives of fallen officers had to get through metal detectors and sniffer dogs. There were concrete barriers along a one-kilometer road leading to the funeral ground.

In a reminder of the serious security challenges the army faces, the attack, just 30 minutes from the capital Islamabad, killed at least 40 people, including high-ranking military officials, relatives and children.

The cleric's sermon in the mosque was coming to an end when assailants sent bomb shrapnel and bullets flying in all directions.

Ordinary Pakistanis as well as commentators asked how assailants could enter a strategic military area, a question that was also asked when militants in October raided the army headquarters and took hostages until commandos ended the siege.

"If they can strike in such a secure area then you can expect it anywhere ... They're trained terrorists," said Noor Sher Khan, a university student.

PUBLIC OUTRAGE OVER VIOLENCE

The violence has become so intense that some Pakistanis openly criticise the Taliban, despite the risk of inviting the wrath of the militants who have blown up girls' schools, and whip and execute people in public who they deem immoral.

"Taliban can't fool people any more in the name of religion. There has to be an all-out operation against them. If they are spared now then they will never be controlled," said Mohammad Farooq, a Rawalpindi plumber.

Pakistan's army, which backed militant groups in their war against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, now faces a stubborn Taliban insurgency alongside mounting U.S. pressure to root out Islamist fighters in tribal border areas.

"Our authorities have failed miserably. How can a car loaded with explosives roam all over the city undetected? How can armed people walk around unchecked?," asked college student Bilal Ahmed while waiting for a bus in Rawalpindi.

Anger over the Rawalpindi bloodshed was also evident in Peshawar, the capital of the northwest, which has been hit the hardest by bombings. Aside from a loss of life, the violence has also had a psychological and financial toll.

Khushal Gul, a labourer in a worn-out wool shawl crouched on a footpath in Peshawar, said he wanted a safer future.

"Absolutely innocent people died in the Rawalpindi blasts. It makes your blood boil. It makes you want to curse these bombers who kill innocent children and widow harmless Muslim women," he said.

An accidental blast destroyed a shop in Peshawar on Saturday, killing at least three people, officials said, unnerving the city frequently bombed by militants. Police said initially that a bomb had exploded near a fast food restaurant.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Gul Yousafzai and Salman Rao; Writing by Michael Georgy)

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