PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Investigators were Saturday sifting through a mosque in northwest Pakistan after a suicide bomber killed 38 people, heightening fears of a rebel backlash against an offensive to eliminate the Taliban.
The attack happened during prayers in a remote, mountainous village in Upper Dir, which borders the district of Swat, where the military was Saturday pressing a concerted air and ground assault against the Taliban.
Friday’s bombing comes after a series of similar blasts on civilian targets in retaliation for the offensive in Swat, which was launched in late April and would appear to have the rebels on the run.
“The tide in Swat has decisively turned: major population centres and roads leading to the valley have been largely cleared of organised resistance by the terrorists,” army chief General Ashfaq Kayani was quoted saying in a statement.
Claims from either side and reports of death tolls are difficult to verify.
The United States has strongly supported the operation amid warnings that Islamist militants pose a threat to Pakistan’s very existence and were plotting attacks on the West.
The military launched the drive in the northwest after the Taliban advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, in violation of a deal to put the region’s three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.
Attack helicopters shelled militant hideouts in areas of Kabbal town in Swat valley on Saturday, officials said amid reports that several militants were holed up there.
The shelling coincided with a militant attack on a convoy of security forces carrying prisoners from Malakand town to Peshawar. Two aides of hardline Islamist cleric Soofi Mohammad who had been arrested on Thursday were killed in the bomb and gun attack, the military said.
But as the offensive has seemingly swung in the army’s favour, so the Taliban has vowed to step up attacks on civilian centres.
The country has been rocked by more than a dozen bomb blasts that have killed over 100 people since the end of April, with Peshawar, the main city in the northwest, and the cultural capital Lahore both hit.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack — bombers particularly target mosques on Fridays when they are often packed with worshippers.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned Friday’s bombing.
“He reiterates his rejection of such indiscriminate and reprehensible acts of violence and extends his condolences to the families of the victims and to the government of Pakistan,” a UN statement said.
US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, expressed concern Friday about another possible challenge for Pakistani security forces.
The arrival of more US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan could lead to a huge influx of Taliban fighters into Pakistan, threatening to destabilise the country further, Holbrooke told reporters in Islamabad.
“I don’t want to be alarmist here, but I’m predicting some massive influx,” he said.