ISLAMABAD (AP) – A suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a checkpoint in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley, killing at least five people Saturday in a reminder that extremists can still strike despite the military’s retaking of the area, police said.
It was the first suicide attack in Swat since July, when the government said its forces had mostly driven out the Pakistani Taliban from the one-time tourist area in its largest offensive against the militants in years. Hundreds of thousands of the roughly 2 million people who fled the area during the fighting have been returning amid tight security.
A day earlier, Swat residents who had come home staged celebrations of Pakistan’s independence day, waving flags and beating drums in a government-sponsored show of normalcy. In some places, women danced in the streets, an act of defiance, since the hard-line Islamist Taliban banned women from public during their rule over the valley.
Three soldiers manning the security checkpoint were killed immediately in Saturday’s attack in the town of Khawaza Khela, said senior police official Idrees Khan.
Two other people died later in a hospital, a senior security official said. One of them was civilian, but it was unclear whether the other was also a bystander or a soldier, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
In another part of Swat, security forces killed eight militants in a search operation near Kanju town, a government statement said.
The military has been winding down its three-month offensive in Swat, although the army said it still faces pockets of militant resistance in the surrounding area. The Taliban takeover of the valley, a scenic alpine enclave that once boasted Pakistan’s only ski resort, had become a symbol of extremists’ expansion in the nuclear-armed, mostly Muslim country of 175 million.
Pakistan has said troops will remain in Swat until the fighters of Maulana Fazlullah, a notorious Taliban leader whose thousands of followers are blamed for the violence, are eliminated. Although the military says it has killed or captured a number of Fazlullah’s commanders, he himself has evaded capture.
Saturday’s suicide attack showed that the Taliban still can strike periodically, though they probably won’t be able to retake any territory as long as army stays in Swat, political and defense analyst Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi said.
“It is a strong message from Taliban. They want to convey that it is not over,” Rizvi told The Associated Press. “They want to show that they are not sleeping, and they cannot tolerate people, including women, going into the streets and dancing as happened yesterday on Independence Day.”
Separately, two other security officials said Pakistani fighter jets targeted a suspected militant hide-out in South Waziristan on Saturday, killing at least five insurgents. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Elsewhere, gunmen attacked a truck terminal in the southwestern town of Yaro, burning three trucks carrying fuel to NATO troops in Afghanistan, said local police chief Zia Mandokhel.
Also Saturday, a Pakistani army officer and two intelligence officials said that a clash between Pakistani and Afghan border guards killed a Pakistani soldier and wounded 12 others.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said the clash took place near the border town of Angore Adda in the South Waziristan tribal region after mortars fired from Afghanistan struck a Pakistani post Friday. They said Pakistani forces returned fire, and the shootout continued for two hours. But Afghanistan’s border police command said there was no clash, although there had been an operation carried out 12 miles (20 kilometers) inside Afghanistan in Khost province that borders Waziristan.
Skirmishes between Pakistani and Afghan forces along the border have occurred in the past, although none has been reported in recent months.
Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war against militancy and it has deployed more than 100,000 troops near Afghanistan in an effort to flush out Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives who are believed to be hiding there.