SAIDU SHARIF, Pakistan (AP) – A suicide bomber driving a motorized rickshaw blew himself up at a security checkpoint in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, officials said, killing at least 13 people, injuring 52 and underscoring the nation’s relentless security threat.
The blast in the small town of Saidu Sharif in Pakistan’s violence-battered Swat Valley was the second major attack in the country in less than 24 hours, raising fears of a new wave of violence by anti-government militants. Suicide bombers killed 55 people in near-simultaneous blasts Friday in the eastern city of Lahore.
No one claimed has responsibility for either attack, though suspicion quickly fell on the loose network of Islamist insurgents who have been laying siege to the U.S.-allied Islamabad government for years and who have stepped up attacks against security forces in recent days.
Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, a top military official for the region, said Saturday’s attack killed 13 people, including two soldiers and two policemen.
“Such acts cannot demoralize us. I want to assure the people of Swat that we will continue fighting till the last Taliban are eliminated,” he said.
The attacker, driving a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw, detonated explosives at a roadblock manned by soldiers and police Saturday morning in Saidu Sharif, the administrative capital of Swat, said police official Qazi Farooq. The explosion sparked panic in the neighborhood, as soldiers in battle gear carried the victims, injured and dead, through the narrow streets to get them help.
Speaking from his hospital bed, Zia-ur-Rehman said he was traveling in another rickshaw when the blast shook the street and violently jolted his vehicle.
“I thought somebody picked me up and then threw me down,” said the 24-year-old, who was covered with cuts and bruises. “Everybody was crying.”
The Pakistani military launched a major offensive in Swat early last year after the collapse of peace talks with local Taliban, who at the time controlled much of the valley.
The military took back control of the valley by mid-2009, but sporadic violence has continued.
In Lahore, meanwhile, funerals were being held Saturday for the dozens of people killed the day before.
Police official Chaudhry Shafique said the death toll from that attack rose to 55 Saturday after 12 more people died overnight. About 100 people were wounded.
That attack occurred when two suicide bombers on foot set off their explosives within seconds of each other near two trucks carrying soldiers on patrol in RA Bazaar, a residential and commercial neighborhood with numerous military buildings. About 10 of those killed were soldiers, said police Chief Parvaiz Rathore.
The militants, a network of Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and affiliated smaller groups, have been fighting to destabilize the Islamabad government for years. They launched a bloody wave of bombings last fall across Pakistan, leaving 600 people dead in near-daily attacks in apparent retaliation for an army offensive against the insurgents’ main stronghold, in the tribal region of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.
The government offensive was seen as fairly effective, forcing many Taliban leaders to flee and reducing the area where the insurgents could operate openly.
The insurgent attacks slowed early this year. In recent months, they have been smaller, farther apart and largely confined to remote regions near Afghanistan. But in a sign that the militant network has not been broken, despite a string of recent arrests, regular U.S. missile attacks and last year’s offensive, violence has surged over the past week. At least 88 people have been killed in the recent wave of bombings.