ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s president, in what will likely be his last major speech to parliament, urged the new government on Monday to keep up the fight against militancy, one of the many problems facing the country.
Asif Ali Zardari spoke hours after militants dressed as policemen and armed with assault rifles and rockets attacked trucks in Pakistan carrying supplies to U.S.-led NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, killing four people.
The attack and the speech both drew attention to the continuing threat militants pose to the stability of Pakistan.
The May 11 elections marked the first time in Pakistan’s 65-year history that a civilian government completed its full term and handed over power in democratic elections. Previous governments have been toppled by military coups or sacked by presidents allied with the army.
Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party was badly beaten in the elections. The victorious Pakistan Muslim League-N party of new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned primarily on fixing the country’s economy, while pushing for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups.
In a wide-ranging speech, Zardari, now a largely powerless figure who has already said he won’t run again for the ceremonial presidency, bid Sharif’s crew well on the economic front, but also urged them to clamp down on extremists who have killed thousands in Pakistan in the last decade.
“Militancy, extremism and terrorism pose the greatest threat to our national security,” Zardari said. As he has done many times, he carried to the podium with him a picture of his late wife Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who was killed in a gun-and-suicide bomb attack in late 2007.
“The nation is united against militants,” the president said. “We need strong leadership to overcome the threat. We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence, but should be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state.”
In Monday’s attack, the militants emerged from the mountains and fired rockets at the NATO trucks, burning two vehicles, local official Iqbal Khan said. The militants wore local police uniforms, and the four dead included truck drivers and their assistants, he said.
The attack took place in the Jamrud area of the Khyber tribal region, along the main route into Afghanistan for the supply trucks. Government official Jehangir Azam told DunyaNews TV that around 15 heavily armed militants were involved.
“It was a very organized attack,” he said, adding that the trucks carried a NATO jeep, an ambulance and other materials. U.S.-led coalition forces say such hired trucks transport only non-lethal supplies overland through Pakistan.
The route through Khyber is one of two main entry points into Afghanistan used by the Western forces. Militant attacks on the road have frustrated NATO, and Pakistan has at times closed the route to vent its anger over NATO actions, including airstrikes that killed Pakistani soldiers.
As a result, the U.S. has increased its use of more costly routes through Central Asia to get supplies into Afghanistan.
Relations with the U.S. figured in Zardari’s speech Monday. He condemned U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, saying Pakistan could not allow violations of its sovereignty, a stance shared by Sharif.
Zardari’s speech was punctuated by applause, including some from Sharif.
Zardari urged Sharif and his team to safeguard democracy in this nation of 180 million, where the army still retains vast power. He declared that “the subversion, abrogation and the suspension of the constitution is an act of high treason.”
That appeared aimed at Pervez Musharraf, the one-time army chief who ousted an earlier Sharif government in a military coup in 1999. Both Sharif and Zardari despise him.
Musharraf is currently under house arrest in Pakistan as authorities try to determine his fate, and it’s not yet clear if Sharif’s government will push for treason charges against the retired general, who led Pakistan for roughly nine years.
Zardari further urged the new government to pay special attention to the poor and to the rights of women and minorities.
He also called on it to stop the misuse of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws. The laws call for death for those convicted of blasphemy, but have often been used to persecute religious minorities in this Muslim-majority country as well as to settle personal scores.
“We need to further strengthen interfaith harmony,” Zardari said.
Past government figures who have called for reforming the laws to prevent their abuse have been accused of blasphemy themselves and in two prominent cases have been assassinated.
Riaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.