Lahore, Pakistan

ISLAMABAD–Pakistan is moving ever closer to a bloody confrontation with the Taliban, which is teaming up with ethnic rivals in a bold series of attacks in the country’s crowded cities.

Militants from the heart of Pakistan joined forces with Taliban insurgents from the remote Afghan border region to carry out the audacious weekend assault on army headquarters, the army said Monday – an ominous development as the fourth major attack in just over a week killed 41 people at a northwestern market.

But the military said the spate of attacks will not deter its plans for a new offensive against the insurgent bastion of South Waziristan.

The prospect of militant networks from across Pakistan cooperating more closely could complicate a planned offensive against the Taliban in their northwest stronghold, a push seen as vital to the success of the faltering U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

New details about the alleged leader of the 22-hour attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi, some 15 kilometres from the Pakistani capital, underscored the bonds among the groups. Officials said Mohammad Aqeel, a former member of the army medical corps, had ties to the Taliban as well as two Al Qaeda-linked militant groups in Punjab, Pakistan’s dominant and most populous province.

Just weeks ago, there were hints of optimism in the battle against Pakistan’s Islamist insurgents. The military said it had routed the Taliban from the verdant Swat Valley. A CIA missile had killed the Pakistani Taliban’s chief – so shaking the group, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said, that his likely successor was killed in a duel for the top spot. Bombings slowed.

But that successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, is alive, a military spokesman said Monday. And as a spate of grisly attacks during the past week has proven, so is the Taliban.

“They have been able to regroup, and they now feel confident to take on the Pakistani state in the cities,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a professor and security analyst in Lahore. “They want to demonstrate that they have the initiative in their hands, rather than Pakistani authorities. So it’s a real kind of war.”

Pakistani military officials said they would not be deterred by the insurgents’ new show of force.

Pakistan’s air force has been pounding South Waziristan in the last day, a prelude to a possible ground campaign, military officials said. Hundreds are reported to have fled in expectation of an attack. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the South Waziristan offensive will proceed whenever the army decides to launch it.

The Punjab connection is significant because it means the Taliban may be spreading their influence beyond their traditional base of ethnic Pashtuns in tribal areas on both sides of the Afghan border. Ethnic Punjabis, by contrast, dominate the army and the major institutions of the Pakistani state. Al Qaeda is primarily Arab.

The Taliban said their Punjab faction carried out the attack in that province – the first time they had referred to such an outfit – and vowed to activate cells outside the Pashtun heartland of the lawless frontier region.

“This was our first small effort and a present to the Pakistani and American governments,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said. Tariq said the group was seeking vengeance for the killing of its leader in a CIA drone strike.

Monday’s suicide blast took place in Shangla, a Pashto-speaking area of the Swat Valley. The attacker was targeting a military vehicle, but most of the victims were civilians.

Punjabi militant groups have long existed, but in the past, they were nurtured by intelligence agencies to focus their attacks on Pakistan’s archrival, India. Their alliance with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban indicates they are now “up for hire” and represent yet another foe, military analyst Shuja Nawaz said.

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