Taliban Attack In Pakistan Caps Deadly Week

Thirteen people were killed Saturday in an attack on Pakistani Army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was the third this week. The attacks, including a massive one in Peshawar earlier this week, have the civilian population on edge. NPR's Julie McCarthy speaks to host Scott Simon from Lahore, Pakistan.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. At least half-a-dozen gunmen attempted to storm the headquarters of the Pakistani army in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, outside the capital of Islamabad today. At least six security personnel and four of the assailants were killed in the heavy exchange of gunfire, and there are now reports that several of the suspected gunmen are holding hostages. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Lahore. Julie, thanks for being with us. What are the latest developments?

JULIE McCARTHY: Well, an operation is underway to release the hostages. The army spokesman says up to 15 people have been taken captive and that an estimated four to five gunmen are holed up with their hostages in a security office at the general headquarters.

SIMON: I think a lot of people just hearing about this story wonder how are people able to attack the Pakistani army headquarters. Presumably, that's got to be one of the best-fortified places in the country.

McCARTHY: Yeah, well, they disguised themselves in camouflage uniforms, and that way they evidently created confusion at the first checkpoint, and the army says when the security personnel challenged them, they opened fire; they fanned out, and what followed was this ferocious gun battle. But as you say, this is one of the most highly fortified installations in the country.

An attack on the army headquarters is an attack on one of the central pillars of power in Pakistan, and critics are asking: If the army can't protect itself, how can it safeguard the citizens against terrorism?

So not only is this brazen, it's especially worrisome because it demonstrates the tenacity and the reach of the militancy here in Pakistan.

SIMON: Has there been any group that's claimed responsibility?

McCARTHY: Yes, the group known as Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is loosely affiliated with al-Qaida. They actually called an Urdu-language TV channel, GEO, and gave a list of their demands. They want the Pakistani military to stop its operations in the northwest, including Swat. They want former President Pervez Musharraf to be held accountable for its rule, and they want Western NGOs to be closed down.

SIMON: As you noted, the army's been battling militants in the Swat Valley, but they've also talked about expanding the fight to tribal areas along the border. Do you have a sense, Julie, if today's attack is going to hasten or delay that operation?

McCARTHY: Well, that's a good question. The army, as you say, has been saying this for the past two weeks, that it's going to start this decisive offensive against the Taliban and their stronghold along the border. But you know, a series of failed attempts at flushing them out has emboldened the militants up until now.

But you've got these three high-profile terror attacks in six days, one in the U.N., another that killed 50 people in Peshawar, the government is under pressure, and some analysts are saying that this shows, all of this shows, that the militants have recovered from what was a demoralizing blow of losing their leader in a U.S. drone attack in August, and they're hoping to forestall a launch of any offensive against them.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Lahore. Thanks very much.

McCARTHY: Thank you.

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