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Pakistan suffers unprecedented winter of attacks as militants seek 'piece of the pie'

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In Pakistan's complicated and multiple insurgencies, killing is cyclical.

The onset of winter traditionally marks the end of the militants' "fighting season" and heralds a lull in attacks.

But this year is different. Pakistan is facing an extraordinary surge in terrorist activity.

The country is reeling from an intense spate of organized militancy that has crossed international borders and morphed from an anti-Western jihad in Afghanistan to an anti-state and sectarian movement deep inside Pakistan. 

The increasingly sophisticated and high-profile attacks have killed scores. They include at least 114 people who were slain in a series of attacks on Jan. 10, a day which was later dubbed "Black Thursday."

This uptick in violence in Pakistan comes as Islamabad is trying to improve its relationship with Kabul and Washington. It is seen as a message from insurgents: They are not going anywhere.

"With the end in sight, and the ground for final talks being laid across the border in Afghanistan, and by default in our badlands, too, everyone wants a piece," said Gibran Peshimam, political editor at the Express Tribune newspaper and a fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. "And those who were bound by circumstance are now at each others' throats for a piece of the pie."

One human rights group has warned that sectarian violence targeting Pakistan's Shiite Muslims was rising.

Speaking to Reuters in the aftermath of "Black Thursday,"  Ali Dayan Hasan of Pakistan Human Rights Watch said:

"Last year was the bloodiest year for Shias in living memory. More than 400 were killed and if [the Jan. 10] attack is any indication, its just going to get worse."  ...

The roughly 500,000-strong Shia Hazara community in Quetta are routinely hunted by extremist groups because their ethnically distinct features make them an easy target, Dayan said. 

"They live in a state of siege. Stepping out of the ghetto means risking death."

The impact of the "Black Thursday" attacks was felt nationally, with relatives of the victims refusing to bury their dead for four days and staging a downtown sit-in, forcing an executive decision by the prime minister and president to sack the province's elected government for ineptness.

Although 14-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai survived a point-blank shooting which provoked international attention and outrage, there has been no shortage of deadly incidents since the Taliban targeted her in October.

By mid-December, Pakistan's gradient of terror became remarkably steep, and continues to rise.

Women and children now fair game

On December 15, a sophisticated, multi-stage suicide-bomber and sniper attack on Peshawar airport and an air force base triggered concerns about the ability of the country's nuclear-armed military to protect itself.

Two days later, the Taliban would claim responsibility for the deadliest car bombing of 2012. Women and children were among 21 killed in Jamrud.

On December 18 and 19, drive-by shootings targeting health workers -- who were part of a national immunization drive to treat children with much-needed polio vaccines -- would claim the lives of eight people, most of them young women.

The following weekend, one the Taliban's most vocal critics would be silenced. Veteran politician Bashir Bilour, a senior government minister, was among nine victims of a suicide bombing in Peshawar. The Taliban would claim responsibility, pledging to continue targeting secular politicians like Bilour.

And just before New Year's Eve, 22 of the 23 paramilitary soldiers kidnapped during a daring militant attack on their posts near Khyber turned up dead. They were executed without any ransom demand being received.

Militants would continue to target women, killing seven health workers on New Year's Day -- newfound misogyny in a region that, though historically volatile, has long respected women's safety as non-combatants. Seven more army soldiers, who were abducted while returning from vacation to join their unit, would be killed on January 2 in Attock.

As Afghanistan's endgame evolves, the matrix of hostilities changes in Pakistan as well -- where women and children are now considered fair game by insurgents. The plot thickens and the terrible surprises continue.

"There are a large number of players and an increasing number of attacks in a lot of different areas, with a lot of different agendas with no real common element," the journalist Peshimam added. "It would be safe to say there are a lot of different quarters that need to be satiated. And fast. If they can't be appeased, then the armed forces will need to lock and load."

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