ISLAMABAD Pro-Taliban Pakistani militants are trying to create a sectarian rift, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Saturday, as a new wave of violence piled pressure on a government already struggling with a flood crisis.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on two Shi'ite rallies that killed 33 people in Lahore on Wednesday and 65 in the city of Quetta on Friday.
The attacks ended a lull after devastating floods which affected 20 million people. Pakistani officials had said before the attacks that any major violence at such a difficult time was likely to cause deep popular resentment against the militants.
On Friday, Pakistan's Taliban also threatened to launch attacks in the United States and Europe "very soon," two days after the Washington added the group, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to its "foreign terrorist organizations" list.
Malik said al-Qaeda linked militants were trying to whip up sectarianism after taking a beating in their strongholds in the country's northwest in a string of military offensives.
"Sectarianism that has been there for 62 years (since the creation of Pakistan), they stoked it again," he told reporters in Islamabad.
Warning that militants would launch attacks again "wherever there is a vulnerable situation," he said "they are using it as a weapon to terrorize people."
Thousands have been killed in sectarian violence by both majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite sects in the past two decades. Shi'ite violence has largely declined in recent years. The Taliban and al Qaeda are Sunnis.
"These militant groups think they can create conflict through sectarianism. But that has not happened," said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
He saw little hope, however, that popular resentment against the militants could undermine them, as happened in Iraq where people turned against al Qaeda over its violent methods.
"They are not looking for support," he said. "They want to destabilize the situation. That is their only consideration."
In Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, shops shut as the city went into mourning. People said they were in despair over the many problems facing Pakistan.
"On the one hand, poor people have been stricken by the floods, and on the other hand we are having these blasts. All businesses are finished. What is going to become of this country?" said Haji Abdul Baqi, a rickshaw driver in Quetta.
Malik said the TTP, al Qaeda and the Sunni Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), one of the most violent anti-Shi'ite groups with roots in the central Punjab province, were all part of the same organization.
"Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, al Qaeda, TTP; they are one," he said. "And the TTP are there whenever there is suicide bombing."
FRESH DRONE STRIKE
Pakistan has been under U.S. pressure to take tougher action against militants, while the United States has also stepped up missile strikes by pilot less aircraft against militant targets in Pakistani tribal areas since the start of 2010.
On Saturday, at least four militants were killed in the North Waziristan tribal region, intelligence officials said.
One intelligence official said they were from the Haqqani network, which operates against U.S.-led forces across the frontier in Afghanistan. Two drone strikes on Friday killed 13 militants, including two foreigners, in North Waziristan.
The TTP has responded to drone attacks by saying it would strike Western targets.
"We will launch attacks in America and Europe very soon," Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior Pakistani Taliban and mentor of suicide bombers, told Reuters on Friday.
The bombings in Quetta and Lahore were the first major attacks since the floods which began more than a month ago and swept through the country from northwest to south, leaving an area almost the size of England under water.
A new wave of violence would be especially difficult to manage given the enormity of the task of providing relief to millions of flood victims. The Pakistan Army has taken the lead in providing flood relief.
Although the water is beginning to recede, large areas are still submerged and some villages in the southern province of Sindh are facing floods for the first time as the Indus river, swollen by heavy monsoon rains, flows south to the Arabian Sea.
Many people say they want to return home but do not know how they will manage with their crops and houses destroyed.
"We want to go to our villages but we are empty-handed, what are we going to do there empty handed?" said Fatima Bibi from the Thatta district of Sindh.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud, Gul Yousafzai, Naeem Daniel and Waseem Sattar; Editing by Myra MacDonald)