By Haq Nawaz and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 28, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, March 27 -- A suicide bomber detonated his explosives Friday in a crowded mosque in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 50 people and leaving more bodies buried in the rubble of the building, officials said.
The attack came just hours before President Obama in Washington introduced a new strategy to fight terrorism and extremism in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The blast hit in the Khyber tribal agency, a semiautonomous zone near the Afghan border that has been plagued by Islamist insurgents, criminal gangs and tribal conflicts. It is a busy cross-border corridor and was a major avenue for U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan until a series of armed attacks on convoys and truck depots last year made the route too dangerous to navigate.
The attack was the most lethal bombing in Pakistan since a suicide truck bomb devastated the luxury Marriott Hotel in the capital of Islamabad last September, killing 54 people and injuring more than 200.
Officials said the death toll could rise to more than 70, a grim and dramatic reminder that Pakistan, a Muslim nation of 160 million that shares a porous 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan, has not been able to quell terrorist attacks despite the efforts of a large professional army and other security forces.
Pakistan has been attempting to negotiate with various Islamic militant groups that often operate and attack inside Pakistan, even as Afghan and U.S. officials have accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of assisting other such groups that focus their violent attacks across the border in Afghanistan. Both groups use the tribal zones as sanctuaries and staging areas for attacks.
The Obama administration is trying to salvage its policy in Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. and NATO troops have been battling Islamist fighters without marked progress. The president announced Friday that he plans to add another 4,000 troops to the effort, which would bring the total of American forces there to more than 60,000.
Officials said many of those killed and wounded Friday were members of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that patrols the tribal zones. The mosque that was targeted was in Jamrud, near the main highway leading to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. It is close to a major Frontier Corps barracks that dates to the time of British colonial rule.
"We are struggling to find the survivors," Tariq Hayat Khan, the top government administrator for Khyber, told a Pakistani television station. He said orders had been given to "shoot to kill" any suspected terrorists in the area but did not speculate on what group was behind the bombing.
Many victims of the blast were rushed to hospitals in this large, provincial capital, about 10 miles away. The government declared an emergency at all area hospitals.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, visiting the city of Quetta, condemned the bombing. He said at a news conference that terrorism is a "regional problem" and that all area governments must improve cooperation in fighting it.
However, in a sign of Pakistan's continued ambivalence about U.S. military efforts in the region, Zardari said he hopes Obama's policy review will take into account the "ground realities" of Pakistan. Such references by Pakistani officials generally mean that there is widespread hostility among Pakistanis to anti-terrorist operations, especially cross-border bombing raids by unmanned U.S. drones. The raids often kill civilians as well as suspected insurgents, spurring citizen protests. Zardari said his government is raising the issue of U.S. drone attacks with Washington.
Constable reported from Kabul. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain reported from Islamabad.