Taliban execute 21 in Pakistan

Peshawar, Dec. 30 (Reuters): Pakistani militants have killed at least 41 people in two separate incidents, challenging assertions that military offensives have broken the back of the hardline groups.

The US has long pressured Pakistan to crack down harder on both homegrown militant groups such as the Taliban and others which are based on its soil and attack western forces in Afghanistan.

In the north, 21 men working for a government-backed paramilitary force were executed overnight after they were kidnapped last week, a provincial official said.

Twenty Shia pilgrims died and 24 were wounded when a car bomb targeted their bus convoy as it headed towards the Iranian border in the southwest, a doctor said.

In the attack in the northwest, officials said they had found the bodies of 21 men kidnapped from their checkpoints outside the provincial capital of Peshawar on Thursday. The men were executed one by one.

"They were tied up and blindfolded," Naveed Anwar, a senior administration official, said over telephone. "They were lined up and shot in he head," said Habibullah Arif, another local official, also by telephone.

One man was shot and seriously wounded but survived, the officials said. He was in critical condition and being treated at a local hospital. Another had escaped before the shootings.

Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan claimed responsibility for the attacks.

"We killed all the kidnapped men after a council of senior clerics gave a verdict for their execution. We didn't make any demand for their release because we don't spare any prisoners who are caught during fighting," he said.

The powerful military has clawed back territory from the Taliban, but the kidnap and executions underline the insurgents' ability to mount high-profile, deadly attacks in major cities.

Pakistan, seen as critical to US efforts to stabilise the region before Nato forces withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, denies allegations that it supports militant groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.

Afghan officials say Pakistan seems more genuine than ever about promoting peace in Afghanistan.

At home, it faces a variety of highly lethal militant groups that carry out suicide bombings, attack police and military facilities and launch sectarian attacks like the one on the bus in the southwest.

Witnesses said a blast targeted their three buses as they were overtaking a car about 60km west of Quetta.

International attention has focused on al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban. But Pakistani intelligence officials say extremist Sunni groups, lead by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are emerging as a major destabilising force.

Their strategy now, the officials say, is to carry out attacks on Shias to create the kind of sectarian tensions that pushed countries like Iraq to the brink of civil war.

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