Pakistan aims to check slide in security

ISLAMABAD Mon Apr 6, 2009 12:36pm EDT

1 of 13. Pakistani Shi'ite Muslims mourn the death of their relatives during a funeral ceremony for the victims of a suicide blast in Chakwal, south of Islamabad, April 6, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan will devise a concrete strategy to stem worsening security, the prime minister said on Monday, after a surge of violence that is likely to dominate talks with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.

Pakistan is crucial to U.S. efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan and frequent attacks by militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban across Pakistan are reviving Western concerns about the stability of its nuclear-armed ally.

Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Islamabad after talks in Kabul, and will meet leaders on Tuesday. He is traveling with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they are due in India late on Tuesday.

In the latest violence in Pakistan, 24 people died in a suicide bomb attack on Shi'ite Muslims on Sunday, a day after eight paramilitary soldiers were killed in a similar attack in Islamabad and a U.S. drone killed 13 people in the northwest.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called chief ministers and police chiefs of the country's four provinces, and intelligence chiefs for special talks on ways to check slide in security.

"A comprehensive and integrated policy involving all stakeholders will be devised to completely eradicate the scourge of terrorism and extremism," Gilani's office quoted him as saying in a statement.

A parliamentary national security committee has two weeks to draw up recommendations on how to tackle militancy, to bring Islamic seminaries, or madrasas, into the mainstream and to improve the enforcing agencies.

Pakistan for years used Islamists to further foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and the divided Kashmir region.

But after joining the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban following the September 11 attacks in 2001, it took a series of steps to combat militancy.

But critics say they were half-hearted and have failed, while U.S. officials say they suspect Pakistani security agents still maintain contacts with some militants.

Surging violence has raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's prospects a year after a civilian government came to power, ending eight years of military rule.

President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and the coalition government are also struggling to revive an economy propped up by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

"NOT A SURPRISE"

Despite such worries, stocks and the rupee both ended firmer. "Such incidents are not a surprise any more," said Shuja Rizvi, director at brokers Capital One Equities, explaining why militant violence no longer spooked stock investors.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made the region a top foreign policy focus and has promised to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Last month, he unveiled a strategy to turn the tide of militant violence with a new emphasis on Pakistan.

Analysts said the recent rise in violence across Pakistan could be a response to the new U.S. focus, including the reinforcements and a spate of attacks on militants by U.S. drone aircraft in Pakistan.

"The presence of additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan is certainly to put more pressure on these militant groups and they would in turn escalate their activities," Tasneem Noorani, a former Interior Ministry secretary, said.

Mullen said on Sunday the extra troops being sent to Afghanistan would start to turn tide against the insurgency.

The suicide bomb attack on minority Shi'ites on Sunday in the central town of Chakwal was apparently aimed at stoking sectarian tension but that was unlikely to happen, analysts say.

"There is general sectarian harmony in the country and I think, as in the past, this attack won't escalate the sectarian issue," Noorani said.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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