Pakistan military holds first Republic Day parade in seven years

ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) - Pakistan held its first Republic Day parade in seven years on Monday, full of flag-waving pomp and aerial military expertise, a symbolic show of strength in the war against the Taleban months after a militant attack on a school killed 132 children.

The Pakistan Day parade, complete with a 31-gun dawn salute, was held amid tight security. Cellular phone networks were blocked as a precaution to thwart militants, who have often used mobile phone signals to trigger bombs.

No parades had been held since 2008, following an escalation in the military's conflict with the Pakistani Taleban.

But the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its history, says the militants have been on the run since the army launched an operation last year to dislodge insurgents from the northwestern regions of Khyber and North Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who attended the parade, issued a statement warning of the threat from anti-state elements. "Pakistan is resolved to redeem its pledge given to its founding fathers that it will protect the homeland," Mr Sharif said.

Military jets looped the loop over the picturesque, low-rise city in the spring sunshine, with a sky-diving team showing off its skills against the backdrop of the Margalla Hills, the forested foothills of the Himalayas.

The show of military might has traditionaly also sent a message to rival India. The two nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947 and continuing mistrust is a factor behind conflict in various parts of the region, including Afghanistan.

Relations between the two nosedived after deadly attacks on Mumbai in 2008, which India has always blamed on Pakistan-based militants, and have not fully recovered.

A dispute over Kashmir periodically flares into violence. "I have written to Pakistan PM Mr. Nawaz Sharif, conveying my greetings," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a Tweet. "...It is my firm conviction that all outstanding issues can be resolved through bilateral dialogue in an atmosphere free from terror and violence."

Pakistani troops have boasted recent successes against the Taleban, who aim to establish strict Islamic rule. The country is still in mourning after December's attack on the army-run high school in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Six gunmen believed linked to the Taleban killed 153 people, 132 of them children.

Pakistan Day commemorates March 23, 1940, when the Muslim League demanded the establishment of separate nations to protect Muslims in the then British colony of India.