By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 12 -- At least 14 people were killed on the outskirts of the northwest city of Peshawar on Tuesday by a powerful bomb blast that targeted Pakistani air force personnel and badly damaged a key bridge that links the city to Pakistan's volatile tribal areas.
Rehman Malik, an adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, said evidence indicates that a roadside bomb caused the blast. Seven of the dead were air force officers, Malik said. Several other people were wounded.
Malik said that no one had asserted responsibility for the bombing but that he suspects it was carried out by Pakistani Taliban forces in direct response to the recent launch of Pakistani army operations in the nearby tribal area of Bajaur.
Pakistani officials said more than 150 insurgents were killed in clashes there in the last six days. Fighting erupted there again Wednesday after insurgents allied with the hard-line Islamist Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan group overran a government checkpoint near the tribal town of Khar.
"Tehrik-e-Taliban and al-Qaeda -- they're all under attack. We suspect this blast has been done by Tehrik-e-Taliban to take revenge for our activities," Malik said. "We are hitting their hideouts, so naturally they are responding."
For the last two days, army helicopter gunships and Pakistani air force jets have repeatedly struck targets near Khar. At least 13 Pakistani security troops have been killed in the region, an important stronghold for top-ranking Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, top spokesman for the Pakistani military, said about 20,000 people had been evacuated from Bajaur to camps in neighboring areas.
An unnamed security official said Tuesday that senior al-Qaeda commander Abu Saeed al-Masri was killed in the recent fighting in Bajaur, according to the Reuters news service. Abbas said Pakistani authorities were unable to confirm whether al-Masri, a longtime close associate of al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, had died. "There is no way to confirm it because the site is not accessible. It is in control of the Taliban," Abbas said.
The skirmishes in Bajaur come at a time of increasing pressure from the United States and NATO for Pakistan to step up operations in the largely ungoverned tribal areas along the country's 1,500-mile-long border with Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials have attempted to broker a number of peace deals with insurgents in the region within the last six months. But as each deal has broken down, attacks by both sides have continued, bringing new pressure on the faltering leadership of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
The suspected roadside bomb and continued fighting in Bajaur coincided with another significant political blow to Musharraf. On Tuesday, members of the North-West Frontier provincial assembly in Peshawar voted 107 to 4 to pass a resolution calling for the president's ouster. The vote came a day after provincial assembly members in the politically potent province of Punjab delivered a similar message, voting 321 to 25 against Musharraf in a nonbinding no-confidence vote.
Pakistan's ruling coalition parties last week called for Musharraf to be impeached and promised to deliver a formal charge sheet against the former army chief of staff before the end of this week.