Suicide bomber kills 41 as U.S-Pakistan relations fray

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 12, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Islamic militants mounted their fourth attack against a Pakistani target in a week, this time detonating a suicide car bomb in a crowded bazaar that killed 41 people in the Shangla District on the edge of the Swat valley, where the Pakistani military had said it crushed the insurgency.

The latest attack, carried out by a bomber who local security officials said was 12 or 13, comes as Pakistan's military accelerates a planned offensive against Islamic extremists in the country's South Waziristan region, which is also a refuge for the Taliban and other militant groups battling the U.S.-led international force in neighboring Afghanistan.

A senior military official, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the army would launch the operation "in hours," adding that a weekend attack on the country's military headquarters in Rawalpindi forced plans to be hastened. Other officials, however, suggested that a ground assault remains days away.

Washington has pressed Pakistan to take action in Waziristan, the heart of the country's Islamic insurgency and a refuge for Afghan insurgents and al Qaida. An estimated 15,000 battle-hardened Pakistani Taliban are holed up in South Waziristan, where the mountainous terrain favors guerrilla warfare.

Pakistan has fought at least three military offensives in South Waziristan since 2004, but each time, the military has been forced to retreat and leave the Taliban in control.

As the Obama administration seeks greater Pakistani support for its fight against al Qaida and the Taliban, meanwhile, conditions Congress included in a bill it's passed to provide $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan are straining relations between the two countries.

Bowing to pressure from the country's military and its opposition parties, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari appears ready to demand that Congress rewrite the legislation to remove demands that Pakistan take action against terrorism and nuclear proliferation and maintain civilian control over the military. Last week, Pakistan's army chief expressed "strong concern" over the bill, which he said interfered in national security matters.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi left for Washington Monday to convey the "feelings" of his country to Congress and the White House.

"Pakistan will make no compromises in its sovereignty or allow micro-management (of the country)," he said.

It wasn't clear, however, whether Qureshi's visit is intended mostly for domestic consumption or whether he'll attempt to convince Congress to rewrite legislation that's awaiting President Barack Obama's signature, which seems unlikely.

It also remains to be seen whether the latest wave of terrorist attacks, which have killed more than 100 people, will prompt Pakistan to step up its campaign against Islamic militants or whether the growing friction with Washington will encourage it to continue supporting groups that are targeting Afghanistan while battling those that seek to impose their harsh brand of Islamic rule on Pakistan.

The Pakistani army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, called the attacks "signs of desperation . . . an attempt to bring the state, the military and the government under strain" so Pakistan would back off from entering Waziristan.

Others, however, said the terror campaign reflects a Taliban revival and the likelihood of growing bloodshed in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

"The organization (the Pakistani Taliban) has already demonstrated it is far from a spent force. It has in fact struck back with a vengeance," said an editorial Monday in The News, a Pakistani daily.

The bomber in Shangla targeted a military vehicle that was passing through a bazaar. All six military personnel in the vehicle were killed, but shoppers also fell victim. The blast shredded and incinerated the marketplace and other vehicles, leaving the area blackened and smoking.

"It appears to be a suicide attack. The bomber hit one of three military vehicles that were passing through the busiest market in the district," said Shangla's senior police official, Khan Bahadur Khan.

Army spokesman Abbas told a media briefing Monday that the assailants who attacked Pakistan's military headquarters had planned to hold senior army officers hostage until their demands were met. They issued a list of demands, topped by the release of 100 jailed extremists, as well as demanding the trial of former President Pervez Musharraf and the expulsion of U.S. military personnel from Pakistan.

The terrorists had held 22 hostages in a single small room, with a suicide bomber in the middle ready to blow himself up. The rescue party managed to kill the man wearing the suicide vest before he could press the trigger, Abbas said.

He also said that the military had intercepted a phone call in which Waliur Rehman, the second-ranking leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who's based in South Waziristan, was heard asking an associate to "pray" for the success of the attack.

Abbas confirmed reports that the attack's ringleader had served in the military's medical corps, leaving as recently as 2004.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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