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5.8.09 militants from groups linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban are suspected of being behind the mob violence that killed eight
Christians in central Pakistan over the weekend, a senior government official said on Tuesday.

The army is battling a Taliban insurgency in the northwest, and there are fears that jihadis based in the central province of Punjab, where the attack on Christians took place, could become more active in trying to destabilise mostly-Muslim Pakistan.

Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim sectarian group, and its al-Qaida-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), were suspected of orchestrating the attack in Gojra town, according to Rana Sanaullah, Punjab's law minister.

Incensed by unsubstantiated allegations that the Koran had been desecrated by a Christian, an angry mob torched dozens of houses in the town on Saturday, killing eight people, including four women and a child.

"Absolutely, these banned groups are involved in the rioting," Sanaullah, who is also responsible for the security matters of the province, said from Gojra.

Sanaullah said "masked men" had come from the nearby district of Jhang, birthplace of both SSP and LeJ, to incite the anti-Christian rioting in Gojra.

Around 150 people were detained for questioning. The government received an intelligence report two months ago suggesting that militants were switching from suicide bombings to inciting sectarian strife in the country, Sanaullah said.

Minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti held the same fears following the attack in Gojra. "We suspect and we are getting evidence that members of banned organisations were involved in it," he said. SSP was founded in the 1980s and is primarily connected to sectarian violence against minority Shi'ite Muslims. It was officially banned in January 2002. LeJ, a splinter group of SSP, has forged ties with al-Qaida.

Militants from LeJ were behind a suicide truck bomb attack that killed 55 people at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad last year, and LeJ members were also involved in attempts to assassinate former president Pervez Musharraf.

Minorities, including Christians, account for roughly four percent of Pakistan's 170 million population. Muslims and minorities generally live in harmony but Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan's alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried out periodic attacks on them as part of a campaign to destabilise the state.

Pakistan, which recently witnessed a series of suicide attacks by pro-Taliban and Al-Qaida militants, is the most dangerous country in the 
world, and has become a safe haven for terrorists, a media report says.
"Unlike countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan has everything Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden could ask for: political instability, a trusted network of radical Islamists, an abundance of angry anti-Western recruits, secluded training areas and security services that don't always do what they're supposed to do," says Newsweek in an investigative report being published in its upcoming issue.

Then there's the country's large and growing nuclear programme, it adds ominously.

The conventional story about Pakistan, it says, has been that it is an unstable nuclear power, with distant tribal areas in terrorist hands.

"What is new, and more frightening, is the extent to which Taliban and Al-Qaida elements have now turned much of the country, including some cities, into a base that gives militants more room to manoeuvre, both in Pakistan and beyond," it adds.

Taliban militants, the magazine reports, now "pretty much come and go" as they please inside Pakistan. Their sick and injured get patched up in private hospitals there.

"Until I return to fight, I'll feel safe and relaxed here," Abdul Majadd, a Taliban commander who was badly wounded this summer during a fire fight against British troops in Afghanistan, told Newsweek after he was evacuated to Karachi for emergency care.

Guns and supplies are readily available, and in winter, when fighting dies down in Afghanistan, thousands retire to the country's thriving madrassas to study the Koran, it says.


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