Pakistan Taliban claim responsibility for Lahore raid

LAHORE, Pakistan Tue Mar 31, 2009 2:09pm EDT

1 of 21. A policeman stands guard during a funeral for policemen who were killed in an attack at a police training centre in Lahore, March 31, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mohsin Raza

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LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud said Tuesday his group had carried out an assault on a police academy in the city of Lahore in retaliation for U.S. drone attacks on militants in Pakistan.

He also suggested a bounty put on his head by the United States could be avenged by an attack in Washington.

Eight cadets were killed and scores wounded in the brazen assault that came less than a month after a dozen gunmen attacked Sri Lanka's cricket team in the city, killing six police guards and a bus driver.

Four militants were killed and three were arrested during an eight-hour gunbattle with security forces in the police academy Monday.

"We wholeheartedly take responsibility for this attack and will carry out more such attacks in future," Mehsud, an al Qaeda-linked leader based in the Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border, told Reuters by telephone.

"It's revenge for the drone attacks in Pakistan."

Mehsud leads the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Movement of Taliban Pakistan, a loose umbrella group of factions which has carried out attacks across the country, mainly in the northwest.

Authorities have accused him of being behind a string of attacks in Pakistan including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Pakistani Taliban also have links with Afghan Taliban and send fighters across the border to fight Western forces in Afghanistan.

The United States last week announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the location or arrest of Mehsud.

Frustrated over Pakistan's inability to stem growing cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan, the United States has carried out a series of missile attacks by pilotless drones on militant targets in northwestern Pakistan.

"MORE ATTACKS"

Mehsud shrugged off the U.S. bounty on his head, saying his militants would continue their attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and could even mount attacks in the United States.

"You can't imagine how we could avenge this threat inside Washington, inside the White House," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced Friday the findings of a policy review toward Afghanistan and Pakistan with the elimination of al Qaeda in the two countries the main objective of his strategy.

Obama also made support for Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's government a centerpiece of his policies.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Monday the militants behind the attack in Lahore were believed to be fighters loyal to Mehsud and had come from his powerbase in South Waziristan.

Malik said one of the men captured was an Afghan who had arrived in Lahore 15 days ago and rented a house.

The police chief of Punjab, Khawaja Khalid Farooq, said police had detained 50 suspects and they were being questioned.

"The investigation is moving in the right direction and hopefully we'll get to the bottom very soon," he told reporters after the funeral of the slain cadets.

Militant violence has surged in Pakistan since mid-2007, with attacks on security forces, government and Western targets, severely testing the year-old civilian government.

The militants rampaged through the police training center on the outskirts of Lahore, near the border with India, for eight hours before they were overpowered in a joint operation by the army, paramilitary rangers and a crack police squad.

Three of the militants blew themselves up during the final assault, and commandos rescued 10 police being held hostage.

Officials said 89 policemen were wounded.

(Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani in PESHAWAR; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)

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