Suicide bomber kills 75 at village volleyball match in Pakistan's northwest

Map locates site of suicide bombing in Shah Hassan Khel, Pakistan
By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 2, 2010

KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- A suicide bomber blew up his sport-utility vehicle in the middle of a village volleyball game in northwestern Pakistan on Friday afternoon, killing 75 people and injuring more than 100 in a community that has repeatedly defied Taliban extremists.

Police speculated that the horrific bombing in the village of Shah Hassan Khel, in the Lakki Marwat district, was an act of reprisal against area leaders who last year formed private militias to oppose the Taliban and recently turned in a group of extremist fighters to the authorities.

The attack was the latest in a string of bombings across Pakistan that have increasingly targeted civilians and killed more than 500 people since September. The Taliban has asserted responsibility for many of them but denied carrying out others.

On Monday, an explosion targeting a Shiite religious procession killed 44 people in the southern port city of Karachi. On Friday, the city of 18 million people was virtually shut down in protest. An October bombing in a women's bazaar in Peshawar, in the northwest, left more than 80 people dead.

The region near the Afghan border and to the northeast of the tribal area of South Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has been carrying out operations against Taliban forces since October, has borne the brunt of the violence. Assailants have struck markets, mosques and other crowded civilian targets there, but Friday's bombing was the first to single out a sporting event.

Several previous attacks were clearly carried out in retaliation against communities and leaders who resisted the Taliban. In November, a bombing in a rural market killed a mayor who had openly defied the extremists. As more communities begin fighting back, there is concern that reprisal attacks will increase.

Among those killed and wounded by Friday's powerful explosion were women and children watching the volleyball match, on a playing field in the heart of the village. The bombing also damaged houses and other buildings. The area's remoteness caused delays in transporting the wounded to hospitals, and the death toll kept rising all evening.

Anwar Kamal Marwat, a politician and tribal leader who organized anti-Taliban militias in the Lakki Marwat district, said by telephone from Peshawar that the bombing was definitely intended as retaliation against the armed and organized villagers, who had recently arrested and turned in 24 Taliban members.

"They have been punished for their active role against the militants," Marwat said, noting that the Taliban's influence had been growing in the village area before the private militias struck back.

The local police chief, Ayub Khan, echoed that assessment, telling the Associated Press that the bombing appeared to be a reaction to the "expulsion" of local Taliban fighters. He said that the bomber's vehicle contained 500 pounds of high-intensity explosives and that a second suicide vehicle may have fled the area.

The bombing occurred as the latest airstrike by suspected U.S. drones struck a car carrying three suspected Taliban militants in North Waziristan. A missile strike Thursday struck a house in the same region, killing three people, according to Pakistani officials. Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar.

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