Blast in Pakistan Tribal Region Kills 56

A suicide car bomber killed at least 56 people and wounded more than 100 others Friday when his vehicle exploded in a market in Mohmand Agency in Pakistan’s tribal region of Yakaghund, the administrative center of Mohmand, officials said. Elders were gathered in Yakaghund over tea before a scheduled meeting with the assistant political agent. The bomber came on a motorbike and blew himself up near the gate of the local administrator’s office, witnesses said.

The blast blew a crater nearly five feet deep. More than 70 shops and five houses were damaged in the blast. The explosion also damaged the wall of a nearby prison, allowing some prisoners to escape.

Witnesses said a large number of people were waiting outside the administrator’s office when the explosion took off. “It appeared as though the bike lost its balance and was about to fall, and just then there was a huge explosion,” a soldier who was on duty at the office said. (BBC) Security forces have cordoned off the area and rescue teams are working at the site of the blast.

In the confusion following the attack, various officials provided conflicting death tolls. Amjad Ali Khan, chief of Mohmand Agency, said four policemen were among the dead. Maqsood Mahed Khan, a local government official, said three children and two women were killed. Authorities also believe more victims may be trapped under the rubble of damaged buildings. Rescuers are still searching for bodies in the rubble hours after the blast. Many of the injured were taken for treatment to Peshawar, the nearby capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa Province, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.

The attack was aimed directly at the civilian authorities who are supposed to be helping ordinary people resist the Taliban. The Pakistani Army has been involved in a battle against the militants in Mohmand for nearly two years but has been unable to defeat them.

A distribution of humanitarian goods from the United States, including wheelbarrows and tools, had taken place at Yakaghund on Thursday, officials said. The distribution was organized by the Office of Transitional Initiatives, which works under the Agency for International Development, a United States government agency that is seeking to support the civilian government in Pakistan.

The strike demonstrated the resilience of the Taliban in the tribal region, even in an area like Mohmand that is adjacent to the bustling city of Peshawar. Mohmand is one of seven semiautonomous tribal agencies along the 1,500-mile porous border that Pakistan shares with Afghanistan. The strategic location of Mohmand, a mountainous, heavily forested area with easy escape routes to Afghanistan, makes it relatively easy for the Taliban to organize men and weapons.

The leader of the Taliban there, Abdul Wali, has survived the army’s operations and his group of fighters remains intact, local officials say. A Taliban spokesman, Ikramullah Mohmand, said the rebels claimed responsibility for the attack. The target was a meeting of local officials and anti-Taliban elders from the Anbar Utmankhel tribe, he said.

The top government administrator of Mohmand region, Amjad Ali, said the attack signified “increasing desperation” on part of the Taliban, whose “space is being restricted by security forces.” (BBC)

Earlier this week, the Pakistani government announced it would hold a bipartisan national conference to map out a strategy to combat terrorism, a move that was prompted by an outpouring of popular protest after the attack on a Sufi shrine in Lahore on July 1 that killed at least 37 people.

The military said in the last year that it has been largely able to restore its control over all the main towns and countryside in Mohmand. In September 2009, the commander of local forces in Mohmand said 80% of the area had been cleared of militants. But the military have apparently not been able to crush them conclusively, a BBC correspondent says. There have been frequent militant attacks on security check-points and military convoys in the area since September. Last month, militants launched a major assault on a border post in Mohmand, forcing many soldiers to flee to Afghanistan. Most of them were later handed over by Afghan authorities to Pakistan but nearly a dozen soldiers are still missing, believed to be captured by the Taliban. In subsequent weeks, military jets have carried out bombings of suspected militant hideouts in the region.

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