Suicide bombing kills 3 at NW Pakistan press club, underscoring threat to journalists

By Riaz Khan, AP
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Suicide bombing kills 3 at NW Pakistan press club

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide bomber struck Tuesday outside a press club in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing three people and wounding 17 in an attack that underscored the danger to journalists trying to cover Pakistan’s Taliban-led insurgency.

Militants have threatened, attacked and killed journalists in an attempt to prevent reporting they deem critical of the Taliban, and journalists also say they face pressure from government operatives trying to influence news coverage.

The combination has made Pakistan one of the most dangerous environments to work, rivaling conflict zones like Iraq and Somalia, according to media watchdogs. Tuesday’s attack, one of the most serious yet against journalists in the country, drove that point home.

A policeman tried to search the suicide bomber as he approached the press club’s gate, but the man resisted and was able to trigger his explosives, said the city’s police chief, Liaquat Ali Khan. The dead included the officer and an accountant who worked for the press club, authorities said.

A woman who was at the site died of cardiac arrest caused by the shock of the bombing, said Dr. Sahib Gul at a hospital in Peshawar where casualties were taken. Seventeen other people were wounded, including one photographer slightly injured by flying shrapnel. Many of the wounded were on a bus that was passing the press club, Gul said.

“Journalists have played a vital role in our war by exposing the terrorists, so they are on the target list too like mosques, bazaars and security institutions,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province, of which Peshawar is the capital.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned the attack, saying “threats against the Pakistani media and press clubs are nothing new but it is outrageous that this press freedom sanctuary should be targeted in this fashion.”

Four journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2009 and five the year before, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

At least 45 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2001, the year Pakistan joined the U.S. in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, said Mazhar Abbas, until recently secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Before that, journalist killings were rare in Pakistan.

But killings are just a small part of the threat. Reporters have been kidnapped by militants and detained by intelligence agencies, those in the field have said. Militants have also issued warnings to journalists through fliers distributed in various towns.

Pakistani Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud issued a different kind of message Tuesday in a leaflet distributed in the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, an area in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt where many of his fighters fled following a major military offensive launched in mid-October in neighboring South Waziristan.

Mehsud urged his fighters not to stir trouble in North Waziristan — apparently in the hope of securing sanctuary in a region that is dominated by militants who have signed a truce with the government. He ordered them to “avoid criminal activities, kidnapping, creating trouble and interfering in internal affairs in North Waziristan.”

“Anybody found violating this order will be considered guilty in the eyes of the Pakistani Taliban Movement and will be liable for punishment,” said the leaflet.

It was signed by Mehsud and carried letterhead bearing his name, but it was not possible to fully authenticate the leaflet. Taliban spokesmen could not immediately be reached for comment.

Many of the groups in North Waziristan are focused on launching cross-border attacks on coalition soldiers in Afghanistan rather than waging war on the Pakistani government, the primary target of the Pakistani Taliban. One of the most powerful militants in the area, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, signed a truce with the Pakistani military agreeing to stay on the sidelines as the army invaded South Waziristan to root out Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

The presence of large numbers of Pakistani Taliban could persuade the military to expand its offensive into North Waziristan, a move that would endanger the other militant groups that have established sanctuary there, including the powerful Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction with al-Qaida links.

Mehsud’s statement could be an attempt to convince the groups based in North Waziristan that despite the increased risk, they should allow Pakistani Taliban fighters to remain in the area. However, he did authorize his followers to fight back in self-defense.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik asserted Tuesday that security forces had broken the back of the Taliban in South Waziristan and they were having trouble finding local support.

“My information is that Taliban’s recruits are deserting them,” he said.


Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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