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Pakistan pounds militant positions in extremist stronghold near Afghan border
Pakistan Muharram Heal
Pakistani Shia Muslims watch as a man flagellates himself for the Ashoura, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008. Ashoura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, is marked by Shiite believers as the day that Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and one of their most revered saints, was killed in the Battle of Karbala in the year 680 A.D. - photo by Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Pakistani military pounded an extremist stronghold Sunday near the Afghan border where a rebel leader blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is believed to be hiding, officials and witnesses said.

The strikes came after authorities said Saturday they had arrested a 15-year-old boy in northwestern Pakistan alleged to have been involved in the Dec. 27 slaying of Bhutto, an opposition leader critical of rising Islamic extremism in the country.

The central government has never had much control over South Waziristan, a tribal area where several top militants are believed to live. They included Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani accused by the government and the CIA of masterminding the killing of Bhutto.

Officials said the boy had confessed to taking part in a plot to kill Bhutto in a gun and suicide bomb attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. His role in the mission to kill Bhutto was as a backup in case the shooter or the suicide attacker failed, according to an intelligence official who has seen his interrogation records.

The boy said the slaying was organized by Mehsud, who has previously denied any involvement in the attack, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Authorities say the boy received terrorist training in neighboring Afghanistan before taking part in the mission. He told interrogators he trained for 40 days in a camp run by Mehsud in the Kotai area of South Waziristan before going to Helmand province Afghanistan in 2007 for another 40 days of "practical training."

Meanwhile, Sunni extremists fired small arms and mortars at a Shiite procession commemorating Ashoura, a Shiite Muslim holiday that is often scarred by sectarian violence, the military said in a statement. Nine civilians and three security troops were injured in the incident in northwestern Hangu town, which ended after troops fired tear gas from a helicopter, it said.

Two civilians were killed and five others wounded in the attacks near the border close to the towns of Lhada and Makin in South Waziristan, said Fazal Subhan, a Makin resident. However, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said there were no reports of casualties in the operations.

Fighting in South Waziristan in recent days has killed more than 100 soldiers and militants.

The violence, including suicide attacks that have killed hundreds in recent months, comes as the nuclear-armed country prepares for Feb. 18 elections that many predict will weaken President Pervez Musharraf's grip on power.

Other than the incident in Hangu, Ashoura appeared to pass peacefully in the country of 160 million Muslims.

Tens of thousands marched and beat their bare backs with chains and blades, bloodying themselves in a sign of penitence. They said they were not worried about the possibility of attack.

"The procession is not something that could be curbed through fear of death," said Qaiser Abbas Zaidi, a retired civil servant in Rawalpindi. "People are slashing their heads with knifes and beating their chests in mourning. It means they are ready for death."

In the southern city of Karachi, police detained five men on Saturday with explosives, detonators and a small quantity of cyanide they said was intended for attacks on Ashoura.

"With these arrests we have foiled major attacks," police chief Azhar Farouqi said, adding that the militants may have wanted to put the cyanide into the municipal water supply.

The rising violence has undermined the popularity of Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.

He left Sunday for Europe on an eight-day trip to meet leaders and attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.


Associated Press Writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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