MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, (Reuters) – A suicide bomber attacked a military vehicle in the Pakistani part of the Kashmir region wounding two soldiers, and a U.S. envoy said he did not know if the Pakistani Taliban’s leader was killed by a drone.
Military officials said earlier two soldiers had been killed and four wounded on Saturday but they said later their information was incorrect and two soldiers were wounded.
The Pakistani part of the disputed Kashmir region had for years been free of Islamist militant violence until several attacks there over the past year.
The violence fuelled concern Pakistani Taliban militants battling the state are trying to expand their campaign from their northwestern heartland on the Afghan border to stretch the security forces.
The bomber attacked the vehicle as it was travelling through the southern part of Kashmir, near the town of Rawalakot and not far from the de facto border with India, the officials said. “A man jumped on a military vehicle at a turning in the road,” said a military official who declined to be identified.
Pakistan is facing U.S. pressure to fight Afghan Taliban militants in lawless border enclaves who infiltrate Afghanistan to battle U.S.-led forces there, while also struggling against its own home-grown Taliban insurgency.
Militant violence has intensified since mid-October when the army launched an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in their South Waziristan bastion on the Afghan border.
The United States has stepped up missile strikes by pilotless drone aircraft on militants in northwestern Pakistan.
Security officials said a drone targeted Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud on Thursday but there has been no confirmation of his fate.
“I’ve heard every conceivable version of what’s happened and I don’t know.” the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said. “But if he’s still alive he’s one of the worst people on earth. Absolutely vicious,” Holbrooke told reporters during a visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The Taliban said on Thursday Mehsud had escaped the strike but one militant official said on Friday he had been wounded.
Apparently determined to show their leader was alive, the Taliban on Friday produced a tape recording which they said was of Mehsud. But there was no proof it was him speaking or of when it was made.
The United States has stepped up its drone attacks since Dec. 30 when a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees at a base near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. The attack by a double agent was the second worst on the CIA in its history.
Ten days later, Mehsud appeared sitting beside the bomber in a farewell video, creating the impression that his Taliban movement had become a bigger force to be reckoned with.
U.S. drones struck twice in northwest Pakistan on Friday, killing seven militants, Pakistani officials said.
Pakistan says the drones are a violation of its sovereignty, even though they have killed high-profile al Qaeda and Taliban figures fighting the government.
Pakistan also says its security policy will not be dictated by outsiders, brushing off the U.S. pressure to attack Afghan Taliban factions.
Pakistan sees the Afghan factions, which are not attacking inside Pakistan, as useful tools to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan.
Pakistan also believes the United States will soon withdraw from Afghanistan leaving the country in chaos when Pakistan will need allies among warring factions to pursue its interests.
The foreign ministers of Iran and Afghanistan were in Islamabad on Saturday for talks with their Pakistani counterpart on regional issues.