ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Unidentified gunmen shot and wounded Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, in a brazen attack in the capital on Wednesday that killed his driver, officials said.
Pakistan has been braced for retaliatory attacks by the Taliban and other groups linked to al Qaeda since a U.S. missile strike on August 5 killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the hard-line Islamist group in the nuclear-armed country.
Kazmi, a cleric and vocal opponent of the Taliban, belongs to the Barelvi sect, whose moderate adherents of Islamic sufi mysticism venerate saints and their shrines.
“We have been receiving threats because we are against terrorism, we are against Taliban, we are against Baitullah Mehsud, we are against suicide attacks,” said Kazmi’s brother, Mazhar Saeed Kazmi.
The attackers struck as the minister was leaving his office.
“I was standing outside our office when I saw two gunmen escaping on a motorcycle,” Iqbal Siddiqui, a ministry official, told Reuters.
Local television news channels showed images of Kazmi with what appeared to be a leg wound. Khalid Hussain, a doctor at Islamabad’s Federal Government Services Hospital, said Kazmi was in a stable condition.
The Pakistani army launched a campaign in April to clear the Taliban from Swat and Buner, two valleys a few hours drive from Islamabad, and has since bottled up the main militant stronghold in South Waziristan.
The army says it has killed more than 2,000 militants and lost 312 soldiers in Swat since the campaign began. Independent casualty estimates are unavailable.
The show of force has helped allay fears among allies — particularly the United States and other countries with troops in neighboring Afghanistan — that Pakistan was failing to confront Islamist militancy.
There had been expectations the Taliban would respond with attacks in cities, but Wednesday’s assassination attempt was the first of note since a suicide bomber killed nine people at the top hotel in Peshawar in June.
The army, meanwhile, continued mopping up operations in the Swat Valley on Wednesday as well as another offensive launched a day earlier in the Khyber region, a crucial thoroughfare for U.S. military supplies destined for Afghanistan.
The top government official in the Khyber region, Tariq Hayat Khan, told reporters three militants were killed and 35 arrested on Wednesday, while security forces destroyed four training centers in the Bara area.
“We have found traces of Taliban and drug smugglers links,” he told reporters. “We recovered not just weapons and explosive-laden vehicles, but also drugs from their bases.”
There are strong links between Taliban movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which produces the majority of the world’s opium used to manufacture heroin, and also with drug traffickers on both sides of the border.
Despite the Taliban’s losses, recent clashes and a suicide attack on Sunday that killed 12 police recruits in Swat’s main town of Mingora showed they can still hit back.