ISLAMABAD – The Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for recent suicide attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of a leading moderate cleric and the bombing of a Peshawar hotel frequented by foreigners.
Thousands of people were expected to gather Saturday for the funeral of Sarfraz Naeemi, whose death in a blast at his seminary in Lahore triggered a wave of anger and revulsion toward militants in the country's cultural capital.
Police said the bombing was a targeted assassination of the cleric, who had recently condemned suicide attacks as un-Islamic, denounced the Taliban as murderers and "a stigma on Islam." He also threw his support behind the military operation against the Taliban in the Swat Valley region.
The seminary bombing was echoed within minutes at a mosque used by troops in the northwestern city of Noshehra. The attacks took the count of suicide bombings to five in eight days, including a huge blast at the luxury Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar that killed eleven people, some of whom were foreign U.N. workers.
Taliban commander Saeed Hafiz claimed responsibility for the blasts at the seminary, hotel and in Noshehra on behalf of Tehrik-i-Taliban, the group headed by Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, local media reported. The group has threatened a campaign of attacks in retaliation for the Swat offensive.
In an address to the nation early Saturday, President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to continue fighting the Taliban "until the end."
"We are fighting a war with those who want to impose their agenda on this nation with force and power," Zardari said. "This is the war for the survival of our country.
"These people murdered thousands of innocent people. By spreading terror in Pakistan and by scaring people, they want to take over the institutions of Pakistan. They do everything in the name of Islam, but they do not have anything to do with Islam. They are cruel. They are terrorists."
In Washington, U.S. defense officials said Friday that Pakistan was planning a new assault into the lawless tribal district of South Waziristan, where senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are believed to have strongholds.
Pakistan has announced no such offensive but has shelled and dropped bombs on suspected militant strongholds in the region in recent days, saying it is responding to militant attacks.
Expectations are high that a new offensive will be launched sooner or later, as the government faces pressure to back its claims that it will root out extremists nationwide. The U.S. officials said the initial phases of the offensive had already begun, but offered no timeframe. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation has not been announced.
On Saturday, Pakistani jet fighters dropped bombs on suspected Taliban hideouts in three villages of South Waziristan, killing at least 15 insurgents and wounding many others, two local intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Swat campaign has received generally broad support from a Pakistani public that has started to openly denounce the militants after years of ambivalence.
Military analysts say any fight in the Waziristan regions would have to be much tougher than the Swat operation because the Taliban are more entrenched and battle-hardened from fighting in Afghanistan. They also say that Pakistan may want to deal with more than 2 million internal refugees from the Swat offensive before opening a new front.
Naeemi was mortally wounded when a suicide bomber blew up in his offices at seminary shortly after Friday prayers ended. Four others died and three were wounded, police official Sohail Sukhera said.
Hundreds of outraged seminary students gathered at the scene and demanded the Taliban leave Pakistan, shouting "Down with the Taliban!"
"I was still in the mosque when I heard a big bang. We rushed toward the office and there was a smell of explosives in the air. There was blood and several people were crying in pain," Naeemi's son, Waqar, said.
A leading moderate, Naeemi advocated equal access to education for women and the use of computers in schools — ideas sharply at odds with the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam.
The attack was quickly condemned as un-Islamic.
"A true Muslim even cannot think of such activity," said Mufti Muneebur Rehman, a senior moderate cleric.
In the second attack Friday, a pickup truck loaded with explosives was rammed into the wall of a mosque in Noshehra, killing at least four and wounding 100, police official Aziz Khan said.
In the latest of a string of attacks in the northwest, a roadside bomb hit a prison van in Kohat town early Saturday, killing a passer-by and wounding 16 people, said police official Farid Khan.