Anti-Taliban cleric killed in Pakistan suicide blast

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The Independent Online

A prominent Pakistani cleric who spoke out against the Taliban and supported the government’s military operation against militants has been killed in a suicide bomb attack on his seminary.

Sarfraz Naeemi, who had organised demonstrations against the Taliban and helped form an alliance of religious organisations opposed to their often brutal interpretation of Islam, was attacked at his mosque complex in Lahore just after leading Friday prayers. “Unfortunately, Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi has been martyred,”  said Pervez Rathore, the head of the city’s police force. Another person was also killed and several injured.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, Mr Naeemi’s high-profile campaign in which he denounced the Taliban had made him and his mosque highly vulnerable. Last month, the newly created Sunni Ittehad Council, made up of 22 different groups, held a news conference where they said the Taliban’s authoritarian brand of Islam was creating problems for moderate Muslims and that it supported the military’s operation to drive them from the Swat Valley and elsewhere.  

 Announcing a “Save Pakistan” campaign, the group, which claimed to represent around 85m followers of the moderate Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, declared, “We strongly condemn the Taliban and urge the Pakistan military to eliminate them at the earliest.”

The group said it intended to “unveil the real face of the Taliban before the public” by highlighting public executions and floggings. It would do this by delivering sermons at Friday prayers and holding rallies and conferences. Some members of the alliance even said they were ready to take up arms against the Taliban.

 Among Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims, it is estimated there is an even divide between the differing Barelvi and Deobandi schools. The Taliban doctrine represents a violent shift from Deobandi Islam. Deobandis control around 60 per cent of the country’s madrassas.

Mr Naeemi’s mosque and seminary were moderate and the 125 students from poor families received a broader education than that offered in most Pakistani madrassas.

Computer studies and maths were taught alongside more traditional Islamic practices such as learning to recite the Koran. Mr Naeemi and other members of the alliance said they were monitoring young students in their seminaries who might be vulnerable to approaches from militants after it was reported the Taliban may be targeting such institutions for recruits.

His brother, Tajwar Naeemi, said seven people were wounded in the attack that killed the cleric. “When I came out of the office a few people went in and the suicide bomber was probably among them,” he told Reuters.

At almost exactly the same time that the seminary in Lahore was attacked, leaving part of the building destroyed, a suicide car-bomber set off a device near a mosque in the north-western town of Nowshera, killing at least three people and wounding more than 100. Police official Aziz Khan said it was possible that more people could be trapped in the rubble. “We fear that there could be more deaths. We are waiting for the equipment to remove the debris,” he said.

In recent weeks there has been a wave of attacks in Pakistan’s cities. The Pakistan Taliban has claimed responsibility for a number of the incidents, saying they were carried out in response to the military’s operation to drive militants from the Swat. 

Despite the revenge attacks, the government of Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan army appear determined to press on with the effort. Indeed, yesterday they stepped up their operation, with police in Bannu, a town in North West Frontier Province adjacent to North Waziristan, reporting that the army had been firing at militant positions throughout the night. The army says that up to 130 militants have been killed in the fighting near Bannu this week. Confirming such claims is impossible as journalists are prevented from reaching much of the conflict zone.