Sunday, September 20, 2009

Suicide bomber kills 29 in northwest Pakistan

KOHAT, Pakistan (Map, News) -
Scores of bloodied and bandaged victims filled hospital beds after a suicide car bomber destroyed a two-story hotel in northwest Pakistan, killing 29 people and underscoring the relentless security threat to the region.

The blast Friday on the outskirts of Kohat town wounded 55 others. It was the second attack in two days in the area, which is close to Pakistan's rugged border region with Afghanistan where al-Qaida and Taliban militants hold sway.

The attack took place in the Shiite-dominated village of Usterzai, raising speculation that it may have been a sectarian assault by Sunni extremists. It occurred just days before Muslims from both sects celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Meanwhile, a bomb exploded at a mosque in the northwestern town of Hangu before midnight Friday, killing the district mayor Haji Khan Afzal and wounding three people, police official Gul Jamal said. No one claimed responsibility, but Afzal was from a prominent Sunni Islamist party.

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Islamist militants have also staged bombings in public places in the northwest to warn locals from cooperating with security forces, or punish them for already doing so.

The Hikmat Ali Hotel - owned by a Shiite - was among several buildings destroyed or badly damaged, police official Asmat Ullah said. At least eight cars were mangled by the force of the blast, witnesses said.

Sunni extremist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaida believe Shiites are infidels, and their influence in Pakistan in recent years has fueled sectarian attacks that have long plagued Pakistan.

"When the clouds of dust cleared, I saw the dead bodies and the pieces of bodies all around, and everywhere there was blood and wounded people. They were crying," Wagar Ali, who was wounded in the blast, told AP Television News.

TV footage showed some of the wounded in hospital beds and on stretchers. The victims were bloodied, bandaged and seemingly in shock.

Vegetable seller Madad Ali, hurt in the explosion, said he saw the suicide bomber approaching.

"I was working when I saw a van come from the Kohat road. Inside was a man with a beard, and he blew himself up with a very powerful blast," said Ali. "The roof of the shop came in on me and I was stuck underneath. People started to dig us out from the rubble."

Pakistan has launched several offensives against extremist groups in the area over the past year, but attacks persist. The U.S. is particularly anxious for Pakistan to clamp down on insurgents it says are behind attacks on American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

No one claimed responsibility for Friday's attack in Kohat, a garrison town about 40 miles (60 kilometers) south of Peshawar, Pakistan's main northwestern city.

Kohat police official Ali Hasan Khan said four more bodies were retrieved from the rubble late Friday, raising the death toll to 29. Another 55 people were wounded and hospitalized, Khan said.

On Thursday, six people were wounded when a bomb planted outside a shop in Kohat's main bazaar exploded.

Despite Friday's attack, Pakistan's military has made gains in the region over the past year. A four-month-old army offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley has - according to the military - killed more than 1,800 alleged militants, while at least three top leaders of the Swat Taliban have been arrested.

Suspected U.S. missile attacks have also played a significant role in neutralizing the insurgency, including the Aug. 5 CIA drone strike that killed Taliban chieftain Baitullah Mehsud.

Officials said Thursday they believed the al-Qaida operations chief for Pakistan and a top Uzbek militant were killed in missile attacks in the northwest earlier this month. A Pakistani patrol killed 10 Taliban attempting to infiltrate Swat Valley's main city of Mingora on Thursday.

Government officials say the army is also closing in on Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, whose radio broadcasts long spread fear among residents of the valley.

Search and clearance operations over the previous 24 hours in Swat led to the arrests of seven militants and surrenders of another 13, the Pakistani military said Friday.


Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Hussain Afzal in Parachinar and Robert Kennedy in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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