KHAR, (AFP) – At least 41 people were killed in a suicide bombing Saturday at a World Food Programme distribution point in the tribal area of northwestern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, officials said.
The blast occurred in Khar, the main town of lawless Bajaur tribal district, once a stronghold of Taliban militants who have carried out several bombings and suicide attacks in the area.
“At least 41 people are dead and more than 60 wounded in the suicide bombing,” tribal administration official Sohail Khan said.
In a separate incident 40 militants were killed in Mohmand, another lawless tribal district in the northwesten Pakistani tribal belt in military raids.
There were conflicting reports about the identity of the bomber in Khar with some officials saying it was a woman while others claimed the attacker was a man disguised in a burqa.
The bomber was intercepted at a checkpoint outside the ration distribution centre and the blast occurred during a search, Khan said.
Deputy Administrator of Khar, Tariq Khan, told AFP that the bombing was carried out by a woman.
“It was a female suicide bomber,” Tariq Khan said.
Tribal police officials Mubashir Khan and Munasib Khan also said the attacker was a woman, who resisted being searched and hurled a hand grenade at security guards at the checkpoint before triggering her bomb.
Security officials said they had been warned that two suicide bombers had entered Bajaur and would carry out attacks on December 22, but had changed their plans.
The local administration imposed an indefinite curfew in Khar and security forces patrolled streets and launched a search operation in the area, officials said.
Doctor Mohammad Hafeez, head of the local state-run hospital, confirmed the death toll and said there were several women and children among the casualties.
Officials in Mohmand said 40 militants also died in a military operation.
“Since yesterday Pakistani security forces helped by helicopter gunships carried out raids on suspected militant hideouts and killed 40 militants,” Mohmand’s top administration official Amjad Ali Khan told AFP.
The security forces had launched a search operation in Baizai and Lakro villages of Mohmand following an attack on five checkposts in which 11 paramilitary soldiers and 24 militants were killed on Friday.
Pakistan’s military first launched operations in Bajaur in August 2008 and have repeatedly claimed to have eliminated the Islamist militant threat.
The country’s northwestern tribal belt is a stronghold of homegrown Islamist militant groups and extremists who fled Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001.
Around 4,000 people have died in suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan since government forces raided an extremist mosque in Islamabad in 2007. The attacks have been blamed on networks linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Bajaur is one of seven Pakistani tribal districts, which the United States considers the global headquarters of Al-Qaeda and among the most dangerous places on Earth.
US officials are putting pressure on Pakistan to launch a major ground offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan.
Pakistan vehemently denies accusations that it is not doing enough to eradicate the Taliban in the northwest, saying more than 2,400 troops have been killed in fighting Islamist militants from 2002 until April this year.
Pakistan supported the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, but became a US ally after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.