PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Militants staged a pair of attacks against anti-Taliban figures in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing one of the men as part of an escalating campaign to weaken the country's resolve to fight Islamic extremism.
Suspected militants have killed more than 300 civilians and security personnel in the last month in retaliation for an army offensive launched in the tribal area of South Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding.
The government has supplemented its military campaigns by helping tribal leaders and local government officials set up militias to battle the Taliban. The militias, known as lashkars, have been compared to Iraq's Awakening Councils, which helped U.S. forces turn the tide against Al Qaeda there.
As in Iraq, militants in Pakistan have targeted the leaders of such groups.
A group of militants opened fire on the house of an elder, Malik Sher Zaman, in the Bajur tribal region around midnight on Sunday, killing him several months after he signed an agreement with the government to battle the Taliban, said senior local official Abdul Malik. The militants blew up part of his house in the Mamund area after the attack, he said.
Several hours later, more than a dozen militants opened fire on the house of an anti-Taliban mayor outside the main northwestern city of Peshawar, but security guards repelled the attack, killing three of the assailants, said police official Nabi Shah.
The militants who initiated the attack against Mayor Mohammad Fahim Khan's house in Bazid Khel town, some 10 miles south of Peshawar, had disguised themselves by donning burqas, the all-encompassing garments traditionally worn by Muslim women, said Shah.
"Seeing three burqa-clad women early in the morning, Fahim Khan's security guards challenged them, and the men threw away their disguise and opened fire," Shah said. "But the guards were alert and they retaliated quickly."
The guards killed the three militants, but several others joined the fight, Shah said. The two groups waged a gunbattle before the remaining militants fled, he said.
Khan is the second mayor to be attacked in the last week who has organized a lashkar to fight against the Taliban. A suicide bomber hit a crowded market outside Peshawar last Sunday, killing 12 people, including a mayor who once supported but turned against the Taliban.
Khan said he would continue his campaign against the Taliban despite repeated attempts on his life.
"Militants have exploded three bombs near my house, killing innocent people, and they have opened fire on me several times but have failed so far," Khan said. "These attacks will not weaken my resolve against militants."
A growing number of recent attacks in Pakistan have targeted civilians, including a suicide bombing at a market in Peshawar in late October that killed 112 people, the deadliest attack in Pakistan in more than two years.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks targeting public places, but Pakistani officials have blamed the Taliban.
In a video released Sunday, the group denied the allegations, saying it was focused on attacking the Pakistani government and did not believe in killing civilians.
Repeating conspiracy theories that have appeared in local media, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq blamed the recent attacks, including a suicide bombing at an Islamic university in the capital, on the Pakistani government and the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater.
"The dirty Pakistani intelligence agencies, for the sake of creating mistrust and hatred among people against the Taliban, are carrying out blasts at places like the Islamic university, Islamabad, and the Khyber bazaar, Peshawar," said Tariq, who appeared in the video at the base of a large tree flanked by gunmen.
He wore a white and gray turban and a traditional white Pakistani robe with an olive green vest.
The video, which was posted on YouTube, carried the logo of Al Qaeda's media wing, As-Sahab. It was the first time the Taliban spokesman has appeared in an As-Sahab video, showing the growing links between the two groups.
By denying responsibility for killing civilians, the Taliban could make it more difficult for the government to convert public anger into greater support for the South Waziristan offensive and other efforts to crack down on militants.