ISLAMABAD – Hundreds of Pakistanis banded together and attacked Taliban strongholds in a troubled northwestern region to avenge a deadly suicide bombing at a local mosque, a top government official said Sunday.
The incident Saturday underscored a swing in the national mood toward a more anti-Taliban stance — a shift that comes as suicide attacks have surged and the military wages an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
Some 400 villagers from neighboring Upper Dir district, where a suicide bomber killed 33 worshipers at a mosque in the Haya Gai area on Friday, formed a militia and attacked five villages in the nearby Dhok Darra area, said Atif-ur-Rehman, the district coordination officer.
The citizens' militia has occupied three of the villages since Saturday and is trying to push the Taliban out of the other two. Some 20 houses suspected of harboring Taliban were destroyed, he said. At least four militants were killed, he said.
The government has in the past encouraged local citizens to set up militias, known as lashkars, to oust Taliban fighters.
"It is something very positive that tribesmen are standing against the militants. It will discourage the miscreants," Rehman said.
The surge in suicide attacks reached Pakistan's capital late Saturday when a man wearing an explosive-laden jacket attacked a police compound but was shot down before he could enter the main building. Two officers died and six others were wounded, police said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack at the police emergency response center in a residential Islamabad neighborhood, but it fit with a Taliban threat of strikes in major cities across Pakistan in retaliation for the military's month-old offensive in Swat.
The Swat battle is seen as a test of Pakistan's resolve to take on militants challenging the government in the northwestern regions near Afghanistan. More than 1,300 militants and 105 soldiers have died so far during the offensive, the military says.
The U.S. supports the Swat offensive, hoping it will eliminate a potential sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban militants implicated in attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
The campaign began after the collapse of the most recent peace deal, which imposed Islamic law in Swat and surrounding districts. The agreement was brokered by hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad, three of whose aides were arrested by security forces last week. Two of the aides were killed Saturday after the Taliban attacked their convoy, the army said.
The motive for the ambush was unclear. It could have been an attempt to rescue the men or kill them before they gave intelligence to the military.
But Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed Sunday that Pakistani authorities killed the men because U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke was visiting.
"It is a gift the government has presented to Holbrooke," Khan told The Associated Press via phone from an undisclosed location. "We believe that they are martyred. We want to tell the government that their martyrdom is not going to be futile."
There have been tensions between Sufi Muhammad's movement and the Taliban, who themselves are composed of different factions.
In Bajur tribal region, a clash between the two groups left four dead Saturday, a local official said. The fight occurred over the alleged abduction of a Taliban commander, said Faramoosh Khan, an administrator in Bajur's Mamund town.
Bajur was the focus of a previous military offensive, and the military said it vanquished the Taliban there in February, but reports of militant activity in the region persist.