MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Militants attacked a Pakistani security force convoy near the Afghan border on Wednesday killing 16 soldiers a day after 16 people were killed in a suicide-bomb blast in the capital.
Pakistan has seen a surge in violence since government forces stormed Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, compound last week, ending a week-long siege and killing 75 supporters of hardline clerics. “Sixteen soldiers have been killed and 14 wounded … They used all kinds of weapons,” military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said of the attack in North Waziristan, near the Afghan border, in northwest Pakistan. Pro-Taliban militants in North Waziristan vowed to attack security forces after abandoning a 10-month peace pact with the government on the weekend.
An intelligence official said the soldiers were on patrol in the Datta Khel area, about 40 km (25 miles) west of the region’s main town, Miranshah, when they were attacked. “First there was an IED explosion and then there was an ambush,” the official said, referring to a roadside improvised explosive device, or bomb. Several militants were killed in fighting that followed the ambush, a military official said.
Police in Islamabad stepped up security as the death toll rose to 16 from Tuesday evening’s attack outside a court where the country’s suspended chief justice had been due to speak.
More than 60 people were being treated for wounds after the attack in a car park where a stage had been set up for suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to address lawyers.
Chaudhry, who has become a symbol of opposition to President Pervez Musharraf’s eight-year rule, had not arrived to speak to lawyers at the time of the blast.
Islamabad police chief Iftikhar Ahmed told reporters late on Tuesday that police had information that militant suicide bombers had entered the capital.
Attacks in the capital are rare compared with the northwest, where more than 100 people, most police and soldiers, have been killed in a spate of suicide blasts and shootings this month.
Earlier on Wednesday, a roadside bomb in North Waziristan wounded up to six civilians, a military official said.
Musharraf, who suspended Chaudhry on March 9 after accusing him of misconduct, condemned the blast in Islamabad and urged the public to stay calm, the state news agency reported.
Chaudhry’s suspension sparked protests by lawyers defending the independence of the judiciary and opposition parties seeking an end to army chief Musharraf’s rule. Their joint campaign snowballed into the biggest challenge to Musharraf’s rule since he took power.
Tuesday’s blast went off close to a stall put up by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
One lawyer with the chief justice said he believed the blast was part of the backlash against the Lal Masjid assault and was aimed at the PPP because Bhutto had voiced support for the military action against the militants in the mosque. But another lawyer close to Chaudhry said he believed the chief justice had been targeted by state intelligence agencies.
Bhutto said she was certain her party workers had been targeted, and she believed some “hidden hands” were seeking to create a pretext for Musharraf to impose emergency rule.
Musharraf, an important U.S. ally, has said repeatedly over recent months he would not impose an emergency and elections due around the end of the year would be on time.