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Pakistani police commanders killed in al Qaida-linked attack

Nearly half the top police commanders in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province were killed Thursday when insurgents shot and killed a police inspector, then bombed his funeral hours later, where most of the province’s police commanders had gathered. At least 30 people were reported dead and 40 wounded.

The attack in Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital, was claimed by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the formal name for the Pakistani Taliban. The claim of responsibility called it revenge for a recent crackdown on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al Qaida-linked ally. But militants told McClatchy they thought Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was the more likely suspect because the Pakistani Taliban lacked the local resources to launch any such an operation in Quetta.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has enjoyed a resurgence recently thanks to help from Afghan Taliban who’ve been flocking to Baluchistan in anticipation of an expected Pakistani military operation in northern Pakistan.

The attack was similar to one June 15 in which a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi suicide bomber targeted a bus full of female university students in Quetta and other Lashkar-e-Jhangvi fighters then besieged the hospital where survivors had been taken for treatment.

Authorities said Thursday’s two-pronged assault began with the shooting of a police inspector who was out shopping with his family in preparation for the celebration Friday of the Muslim festival of Eid al Fitr, a holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

When colleagues converged on a mosque in the afternoon to participate in funeral prayers for their colleague, a suicide bomber struck. Among the dead was province’s head of police operations and his command team. The provincial police chief and the chief of police for Quetta narrowly escaped.

The attack was the latest sign that a major migration of Afghan Taliban and al Qaida fighters is underway from North Waziristan in northern Pakistan, which has been their refuge for most of the last decade, to Baluchistan, which has been the scene of a low-intensity rebellion against the Pakistani government since 2004.

The U.S. has long sought a Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan, the focal point of CIA drone strikes against Taliban and al Qaida militants, and the base of operations for the Haqqani network, an Afghan faction notorious for high-profile attacks on Afghan government and U.S. targets in Kabul.

With the election in May of a new Pakistani government, the military has been expected to launch such an offensive at last.

Afghan Taliban and al Qaida fighters reportedly haven’t waited, however. The FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank that specializes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, reported in July that foreign militants have been leaving North Waziristan since the May election. Militants in Karachi have told McClatchy that most of those Afghan Taliban commanders are relocating to Baluchistan.

The migration has benefited Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has incorporated fighters, expertise and weapons into its organization, which previously had been almost wiped out. The tactical training allowed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to conduct a series of suicide bombing attacks last year that killed hundreds of Shiite Muslims in Quetta and Karachi, and it’s behind the group’s ability to carry out complex lethal attacks, according to the Karachi militants, who are area commanders for the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Baluchistan Liberation Army.

The militants said Taliban commanders had begun arriving in four districts of Baluchistan last September, but had stayed away from Quetta because of intense intelligence surveillance there by Pakistan, the U.S. and other countries that are involved in the conflict in Afghanistan.

Instead, the migrating Taliban commanders relocated to the remote districts of Kalat, Panjgur and Sibbi in the Baluchistan hinterland, and to Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, where China owns and operates a port.

Early Taliban migrants arrived in the guise of traveling preachers, living as guests of sympathetic clerics, but were detained by Pakistan’s security agencies, the militants said. The migrants have since avoided detection by moving into areas dominated by Baluch nationalist insurgents, who don’t share the Taliban’s extremist religious beliefs but have "welcomed a new ally at a time of mutual need," in the words of one of the militants.

"The Taliban had long ago realized that they would eventually have to leave the tribal areas, so they planned the move to Baluchistan several years ago. It is working through Lashkar-e-Jhangvi because it has the best network of any militant group there," one of the militants said.

The militant said the Taliban had been welcomed in camps operated by Baluch insurgents. The Pakistani military is unlikely to permit drone strikes on those camps, the militant said, because “it would create a public uproar." Drone strikes in North Waziristan are controversial in Pakistan, but generally they’re aimed at Afghan or other foreign insurgents. The Baluch encampments, however, are populated by Pakistanis.