ISLAMABAD — At least 35 people were killed Monday in a bombing near Pakistan's military headquarters in Rawalpindi, with army personnel among the victims.
The suicide blast by Islamic extremists at a small shopping center seemed aimed at a line of people who were waiting to withdraw their salaries from a bank branch on the ground floor. Soldiers were in the line.
A ferocious wave of terrorist attacks has hit Pakistan, apparently in retaliation for the launch last month of a military offensive in the South Waziristan region, in the tribal area along the Afghan border. The region is the base of the country’s Taliban movement, which is behind most of the bloodshed, and is thought to be controlled by al Qaida. More than 300 people have been killed in the attacks since the beginning of October.
U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials increasingly are concerned by the attacks in and around the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and in the country’s central Punjab province. These attacks, they fear, may reflect growing ties between militant groups on the Afghan border and others in the heart of the country, some of which the Pakistani military and intelligence service have nurtured as weapons against archrival India.
In Rawalpindi, bodies of the dead and wounded were strewn across the parking lot and the road in front of the shopping center Monday, women and children among them, witnesses said. Pools of blood and the twisted metal remains of vehicles marked the spot after the bodies were removed. Some 65 people were wounded.
The explosion was a few hundred yards from the military headquarters complex, and the bank may have been the nearest for army personnel to use. The Ministry of Defense is also nearby. Given that it was the first workday of the month, many people would have just had their wages and pensions paid into their accounts. The capital, Islamabad, is a 25-minute drive away.
Four soldiers were killed in the attack and nine were wounded, according to the army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in a statement that “such barbaric, inhuman and un-Islamic terrorist acts only strengthen our resolve to fight terrorism with more vitality.”
A bombing last week at a market in Peshawar killed more than 115 people. Last month, a team of assailants shot its way into the military headquarters at Rawalpindi, killing six people and taking hostages before commandos retook the building.
Pakistan on Monday announced rewards of $5 million for information that leads to the killing or capture of Taliban leaders, including Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who now has a bounty of some $600,000 on his head. It's feared that the leadership has slipped out of the war zone, probably into adjacent North Waziristan.
Abbas, the military spokesman, said that the Taliban high command “is not visible in the fight ... we don’t have any firm news on them.”
The army reported Monday that it had taken the key Taliban stronghold of Kaniguram, which the military described as a “hotbed of terrorism,” as troops advance deeper into South Waziristan toward the extremist “capital” of Makeen.
Also on Monday, the United Nations reported that it was suspending development work in the terrorism-plagued North West Frontier Province and the tribal area. The U.N., which has lost 11 employees to terrorist violence in recent months, will reduce the number of international staff in the country and undertake only emergency work in the northwest.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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