Blast in market in NW Pakistani kills at least 8 people, wounds dozens

By Sherin Zada, AP
Monday, February 22, 2010

Blast kills 8 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

MINGORA, Pakistan — A suicide bomber targeting Pakistani security forces set off a blast that ripped through a busy market in the northwestern Swat Valley on Monday, killing at least eight people and wounding dozens of others, officials and witnesses said.

The attack in the district capital of Mingora was the latest violence in the restive border region with Afghanistan where the military has been waging offensives against Taliban militants who have been fighting back, often with homemade bombs.

Monday’s explosion occurred at a downtown intersection surrounded by small shops and stalls as at least two vehicles carrying security forces passed by, officials and witnesses said.

The blast ripped out shop fronts and blew out the windows of cars on the street , television footage from the scene showed. Several cars were gutted, and a fire engine rushed to extinguish a blaze ignited by the explosion.

Witness Shiraz Khan said he heard people crying out for help immediately after the blast.

“It was a suicide attack. Its target was security forces,” said Maj. Mishtaq Khan, the army spokesman in Swat. Two soldiers were among the 37 people wounded, he said.

Dr. Lal Noor, head of the Saidu Sharif Hospital in Mingora, said the bodies of eight people killed were brought to the facility.

Swat police Chief Mohammad Idrees said items found at the scene including parts of a cell phone and a watch were believed to have come from the suicide bomber.

The Pakistani military launched a major offensive in the mountainous Swat Valley early last year after peace deals with local Taliban collapsed and the militants took control of parts of the region, just four hours’ drive from the national capital, Islamabad. The military took back the Swat Valley by mid-2009, but sporadic violence has continued.

The Swat offensive drew strong praise from Washington, which has long urged Pakistan to do more to combat militants in the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border and to root out al-Qaida militants believed to be sheltering there. Pakistan followed up the Swat campaign with an offensive in the nearby South Waziristan tribal zone.

In recent months, the Taliban have been weakened by a campaign of CIA missile strikes from unmanned drone aircraft in the border region that have killed some senior leaders. This month, Pakistan also arrested three senior Afghan Taliban leaders — including the group’s No. 2 commander — and rounded up dozens of other militant suspects, in raids sometimes carried out with U.S. intelligence or other assistance.

Analysts are divided about whether the crackdown signals a shift in Pakistani policy in which security forces are finally going after militants who are thought to have long enjoyed sanctuary in the country, or if the arrests are part of a Pakistani strategy to position the country as a major player in any peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

In another part of the restive northwest, the decapitated bodies of two Sikhs were found almost a month after they were kidnapped in the Khyber tribal region, officials said Monday. Local government official Jawed Khan said the family of one of the two men told authorities that kidnappers had demanded 15 million rupees ($175,000) in ransom for his return.

Sikhs are a tiny minority in Islamic Pakistan, though there is a sizable community in the northwest that has increasingly suffered persecution as Islamic extremists have gained influence in recent years.

Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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