A Pakistani official played down suggestions that the Taliban had become entrenched in the nuclear-armed country's heartland on Friday, a day after a series of deadly attacks indicated the Islamist extremists have made inroads far from their sanctuaries along the Afghan border.
A wave of violence in the past two weeks has killed more than 150 people in Pakistan and fueled concerns that the Taliban had linked up with other militant groups around the country, forming an insurgent alliance that would vastly increase the threats to the U.S.-allied country.
On Thursday, gunmen attacked three law enforcement compounds in the country's second-largest city of Lahore _ the capital of the Punjab _ killing 19 people. The nine attackers were also killed. The new violence appeared aimed at preventing the army from launching an offensive in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.
Two officials said initial investigations into the Lahore attacks showed Taliban from the Afghan border region and militants from Punjab were responsible.
"This was a well-coordinated Taliban operation supported by local groups," Umer Virk, head of the Lahore anti-terrorist police, told The Associated Press.
Observers say Punjab's militant problem is most pervasive in its south. But speaking to reporters in Lahore on Friday, provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah played down any such threat. "The Taliban don't have any authority in southern Punjab, and there is no need for any operation against them," he said. Sanaullah, who said authorities had arrested some people in connection with the assaults, also defended the performance of security agencies during the standoffs, and said previous intelligence about the possible attacks was too vague to act upon. The tactics used in Lahore were similar to previous strikes blamed on the Taliban network in South Waziristan and allied militants from Punjab, the nation's most populous and powerful province. The methods include using teams of well-armed gunmen carrying suicide vests.
The government has said the planning for the attacks is often done near the Afghan border, while the foot soldiers are recruited in Punjab. In claiming responsibility for another recent attack, the Taliban said one of their cells in Punjab had carried it out. The U.S. hopes that a Pakistani army operation in South Waziristan will help break much of the militant network that threatens both Pakistan and American troops across the border in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani army has given no time frame for the expected offensive.
It has reportedly already sent two divisions totaling 28,000 men and blockaded the area. Analysts say that with winter approaching, any push would likely have to begin soon to be successful.