PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – A roadside bomb hit a Pakistan air force truck in a northwestern city Tuesday, killing as many as 14 people including a 5-year-old girl in the latest violence in the volatile region.
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials said they were investigating whether a suspected militant reported killed in ongoing clashes in a nearby tribal region was a senior al-Qaeda commander.
The blast hit the vehicle on a bridge on the outskirts of Peshawar, provincial police chief Malik Naveed Khan said.
The truck was traveling between the city and the nearby air force base in Badaber.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said al-Qaeda-linked militants were likely behind the attack. He said Pakistan had been taking action against Taliban militants, but did not say whether Tuesday’s attack could be a response to recent military operations in the region.
The powerful explosion tore a large hole in the bridge, reducing the Mazda truck to a smoldering wreck. The site was littered with debris, blood and also the mangled wreckage of a motorcycle.
A crowd of bystanders gathered at the scene as victims were ferried away in ambulances. Firefighters hosed down the blackened carcass of the truck, and air force investigators gathered evidence.
An AP Television News cameraman at the scene said he saw at least 12 dead bodies and about a dozen wounded people. He said the victims included civilians. There were varying accounts of the toll. Provincial government spokesman Mian Iftikhar Hussain said 14 people were killed in all, mostly air force personnel, and more than 12 people were wounded.
Jehangir Khan, another police officer, said seven air force personnel and five civilians were killed in the bombing. Fourteen other people were injured, he said.
A 5-year-old girl in a nearby vehicle was among the dead, said Nisar Khan, a Peshawar police officer. He said police were trying to trace relatives of the girl.
A bomb disposal officer at the scene, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said it was planted under the bridge and contained between 66 and 88 pounds (30 and 40 kilograms) of explosives.
The bombing follows threats from Taliban militants that they would launch attacks on the government in retaliation for military operations in the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.
A senior Interior Ministry official confirmed Tuesday that authorities were probing the identity of a suspected militant reported killed this week in clashes in Bajur tribal region, where the army has pounded militant positions.
A senior intelligence official identified the militant as an Egyptian known as Abu Saeed and said he was believed to be a close aide of al-Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri. He said authorities had intelligence the militant had died but did not have the body.
A top al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed, who had appeared in videos issued by the terror group, is also known by the alias Abu Saeed al-Masri. The ministry official said Pakistani authorities were trying to confirm whether the Abu Saeed reported killed was the same man. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Two Taliban spokesmen contacted by The Associated Press in Afghanistan, Qari Yousef Ahmadi and Zabiullah Mujahid, said Tuesday that they had no information about it.
In late July, an al-Qaeda explosives and poison expert, Abu Khabab al-Masri, died in a suspected U.S. missile strike in the Pakistani border region of South Waziristan.
Early Tuesday, Pakistani army gunship helicopters shelled suspected militant positions in Bajur, which lies further north along the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier.
The shelling struck a house in Takht village, about six miles (10 kilometers) south of Bajur’s main town of Khar, killing five suspected militants and wounding three other people, a local intelligence official and a resident said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Said Khan, a Takht resident, said the house was believed to be a gathering point for Taliban militants.
Officials have said at least 100 militants and nine paramilitary troops have been killed since last week, although independent confirmation of the toll has not been possible. Thousands of residents have reportedly fled the area.