Twin suicide bombers kill 62, wound 111 in Pakistani tribal area where army has fought Taliban

By Riaz Khan, AP
Friday, July 9, 2010

Twin suicide bombs kill 62 in Pakistan tribal area

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A pair of suicide bombings killed 62 people Friday outside a government office in a region along the Afghan border where the Pakistani army and U.S. missiles have had some success in decreasing the number of such attacks.

The assault, which wounded at least 111 people, was one of the deadliest in Pakistan this year. There was speculation that the bombers were targeting anti-Taliban tribal elders visiting the government office in the village of Yakaghund, part of the Mohmand tribal area in the country’s northwest.

The attackers struck within seconds of each other as two U.S. senators met with Pakistani leaders in the capital, Islamabad, to discuss their countries’ cooperation in the fight against terrorism, much of it being waged in the lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban have long had redoubts.

One of the bombs appeared fairly small but the other was huge, officials said. At least one bomber was on a motorcycle.

The bombers detonated their explosives near the office of Rasool Khan, a deputy Mohmand administrator who escaped unharmed. The tribal elders, including those involved in setting up militias to fight the Taliban, were in the building, but none was hurt, according to Mohmand chief administrator Amjad Ali Khan.

Video footage showed dozens of men searching through piles of yellow brick and mud rubble for survivors. Women and children were among the victims.

Abdul Wadood, 19, was sitting in a vehicle at the time of the bombings.

“I only heard the deafening blast and lost consciousness,” said Wawood, who was being treated for head and arm wounds in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) away. “I found myself on a hospital bed after opening my eyes. I think those who planned or carried out this attack are not humans.”

Some 70 to 80 shops were damaged or destroyed, while damage to a prison building allowed 28 prisoners — ordinary criminals, not militants — to flee, said Rasool Khan, who gave the casualty figures.

Near the attack site, officials had been distributing wheelchairs to disabled people and equipment to poor farmers, Amjad Ali Khan said. It was unclear how many participants in that event were among the victims.

Khan disputed reports that the aid was provided through U.S. funding, saying it came from Pakistani government funds.

However, U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire confirmed that on the previous day Pakistani staff from a Washington-based contractor that receives USAID money had been giving out farm equipment in the village. The staff of that contractor, AED or Academy for Educational Development, were staying in the area, but were not believed to have been the targets Friday, Snelsire said.

Pakistani Taliban spokesmen could not be immediately reached after the attack. There were scattered reports that the militant group’s branch in Mohmand had claimed responsibility and said it was targeting the elders.

Mohmand is one of several areas in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt where Taliban and al-Qaida members are believed to be hiding. The Pakistani army has carried out operations in Mohmand, but it has been unable to extirpate the militants. Its efforts to rely on citizen militias to take on the militants have had limited success there.

Nevertheless, there have been fewer attacks in Pakistan this year than in previous years — most notably in the northwest. In the last three months of 2009, more than 500 people were killed in a surge of attacks in the country.

Although information from the tribal belt is difficult to verify independently, the Pakistani army’s operations and U.S. missile strikes are believed to have calmed the situation since then.

The attacks that have occurred in 2010 have inflicted large numbers of casualties.

On New Year’s Day, a suicide car bomber struck a sports event near a meeting of tribesmen who supervise an anti-Taliban militia near the South Waziristan tribal area. At least 96 people were confirmed dead.

Some of the worst attacks in 2010 have taken place far from the northwest, in cities such as Karachi in the south and Lahore in eastern Punjab province.

Still, the main bases of militant groups in Pakistan are believed to be in the northwest, particularly the tribal regions, which have semiautonomous status and where the government has long had little influence.

Washington is watching closely how Pakistan handles its militant crisis, pushing the South Asian country to wage war on Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who use its territory to plan attacks against Western troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, a committee member, visited Pakistani officials in Islamabad on Friday. In a statement issued after his meeting with the American lawmakers, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said both countries should try harder to increase mutual trust.

He said Pakistan was doing its utmost to combat militancy, and “expected friendly countries like (the) U.S. to share with it credible and actionable information rather than indulging in blame game, in order to achieve our shared and common goal of succeeding against militancy.”

Over the past decade Pakistan and the U.S. have frequently questioned each other’s motives in the region.

Pakistan has been suspected of fomenting problems in Afghanistan as part of its regional struggle with India, while Islamabad has suggested that Washington gives favorable treatment to New Delhi in areas such as nuclear armament.

In a reference to its larger archrival, Gilani said the U.S. should take a “fair and nondiscriminatory approach … in its relations with the regional countries.”

In recent visits to Pakistan, U.S. officials have stressed that the relationship between the two countries has improved.

Toosi reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Habib Khan in Khar and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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