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Pakistan group claims police attack, makes demands

LAHORE, Pakistan – The militant group that claimed responsibility for the assault on a police academy said Tuesday it will carry out more attacks unless Pakistani troops withdraw from tribal areas near the Afghan border and the U.S. stops drone attacks against militants in the country.

Omar Farooq, who said he is the spokesman for little-known Fedayeen al-Islam, also said the group carried out a similar ambush-style attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this month in Lahore — the same eastern city where a group of gunmen stormed a police academy Monday and killed at least six trainee officers before being overpowered by Pakistani commandos.

The group previously said it was behind the deadly September bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad that killed 54 people.

Such attacks pose a major test for the weak, year-old civilian administration of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari that has been gripped with political turmoil in recent weeks.

Some of the gunmen who attacked the academy Monday wore police uniforms, and the group managed to hold off security forces for about eight hours, seizing hostages and throwing grenades.

Four suspected militants were arrested, while at least three blew themselves up during the battle, said Rao Iftikhar, a top government official in Punjab province. He said three other bodies were still unidentified, two of them wearing police uniforms.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said one of the arrested men was an Afghan, and that investigators believe the attack may have its roots along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants have hideouts. But Malik also pointed fingers at a Punjab-based Sunni extremist group and refused to rule out an Indian role.

Farooq, the Fedayeen al-Islam spokesman, is also a member of the Pakistan Taliban, illustrating the dangerous links among various militant groups operating in the country.

“We will carry out more attacks in the future if the government doesn’t pull troops out of the tribal areas, if the Americans don’t stop drone attacks and if the Pakistani government doesn’t release Maulana Abdul Aziz,” Farooq told The Associated Press by phone.

Aziz was the chief cleric at Islamabad’s Red Mosque, which was the site of a pitched battle between militants and security forces in 2007. Aziz was arrested during the security operation to retake the mosque as he tried to flee wearing a burqa, the all-encompassing woman’s veil.

Aziz has links to the Pakistan Taliban, which has stepped up attacks inside the country from its bases near the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has launched several operations against militants in the border region.

The Pakistan Taliban has links with al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban militants based in the same area who have launched cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan faces tremendous U.S. pressure to eradicate militants from its soil. The U.S. has stepped up drone attacks against militants in the border region, causing tension with Pakistani officials who protest they are a violation of the country’s sovereignty and kill innocent civilians.

Monday’s highly coordinated attack highlighted that militants in the country pose a threat far outside the border region. It prompted Malik, Pakistan’s top civilian security official, to say that militant groups were “destabilizing the country.”

Officials said more than 90 officers were wounded in the assault.

“We were attacked with bombs. Thick smoke surrounded us. We all ran in panic in different directions,” said Mohammad Asif, a wounded officer taken to a hospital.

Masses of security forces surrounded the compound, exchanging fire in televised scenes reminiscent of the militant siege in the Indian city of Mumbai in November and the attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team, which left six police officers and a driver dead and wounded several players.

“The eight hours were like eight centuries,” said Mohammad Salman, 23, one of the hostages. “It was like I died several times. I had made up my mind that it was all over.”

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