Pakistani Taliban plot with seminaries to assault capital: police

ISLAMABAD Fri Apr 11, 2014 8:44am EDT

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani Taliban will coordinate with Islamist activists at major seminaries in or near the capital, Islamabad, to launch attacks if peace talks with the government fail, police said in a report obtained by Reuters.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took power last year promising to end Pakistan's insurgency through negotiations. Talks got going in February but have achieved little.

The Pakistani Taliban, allied with but separate from the Afghan Taliban, are fighting to overthrow the government and impose a strict version of Islam on the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.

They called a ceasefire beginning on March 1 to facilitate the talks but it officially ended on Thursday. It is unclear if the ceasefire will be extended.

Police said in the report that two well-known seminaries would support attacks in the capital and its twin city of Rawalpindi if the talks break down and the military moves against Taliban bases in areas bordering Afghanistan.

"If talks between the government and the Taliban fail ... like-minded religious seminaries and mosques have been given the target of fully contributing in carrying out attacks," police said in the report, which was prepared last month.

Police identified two well-known seminaries, or madrasas, on the outskirts of Islamabad. They said the two had already helped launch several attacks, including a 2009 assault on the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi.

One is led by a cleric called Azizur Rehman Hazarvi. It provides "brain washing courses and lessons on sacrificing oneself for jihad", police said in the report.

The other is run by Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who is on a U.S. terror watch-list and signed a 1996 fatwa or decree from Osama bin Laden in which he declared war on the United States.

At Khalil's seminary, commanders provide "jihadi weapons training classes" to students from the ethnic Pashtun tribal areas which have long been militant recruiting grounds, police said.

The two seminaries also host fighters who come to carry out attacks and help with "all last minute preparations", they said.

Militant fighters have set themselves up with activists at hardline mosques in Islamabad before.

In 2007, more than 100 people were killed when security forces assaulted the Red Mosque in the heart of the capital after well-armed fighters from the tribal areas and followers of the mosque's radical clerics running a Taliban-style movement refused to surrender.

Police and government spokesmen declined to comment on the report but security officials who requested not to be identified said the information was correct. One police officer said 20 seminaries in Rawalpindi were being investigated for similar Taliban links.

"KILL THEM IN THE CITIES"

Khalil denied any connection with the Taliban and said his seminary was being threatened by insurgents for being pro-government.

"We openly believe that any attacks against Pakistan are wrong and against Islam," Khalil told Reuters. "Ask the police to show me one arrested person who is linked to my seminary."

The other cleric identified in the report, Hazarvi, was not available for comment.

The Pakistani Taliban spokesman was also not available to comment but a member of the Taliban leadership council said fighters were present in all major cities and would be "unstoppable" if the talks with the government broke down.

"If the government attacks us in the tribal areas, we will kill them in the cities," he said. "By the grace of god, the Taliban today are more united and present everywhere."

A bomb in a market on the outskirts of Islamabad on Wednesday killed 24 people. The Taliban denied responsibility.

Despite Khalil's denial of militant links, police say he runs a faction called Ansarul Ummah, which draws support from several groups linked to al Qaeda. Investigators say Ansar is a front for the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen that Khalil founded in 1985.

Harkat was one of several militant groups patronized by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, who have long considered such groups useful assets in case of war with arch enemy India and in promoting Pakistani interests in neighboring Afghanistan.

A cleric knowledgeable about hardline seminaries said he believed that Khalil had links with the Taliban and described him as a middleman for Taliban and government negotiators. Khalil's role in trying to get talks going has been reported in the media.

Muneebur Rehman, chairman of an alliance of seminaries, dismissed the findings of the police report and asked, if it were true, why authorities had not done anything.

"If this report carries evidence of seminaries collaborating with Taliban for attacks, the government must go ahead and take action," Rehman said.

But security officials say they are often hamstrung because judges are too afraid to sentence militants.

"Khalil has been arrested before but freed for lack of evidence," said a top official. "Is there even one judge in this country who can convict him?"

(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Eissa Saeed in Islamabad, Mubasher Bokhari in Lahore; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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