MINGORA, Pakistan, (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed five people in Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Saturday, police said, fuelling fears of a Taliban comeback in the area a year after a major army offensive routed the group.
Pakistan says a series of security crackdowns that began in Swat hurt militants fighting to topple the government, which is under pressure from Washington to help stabilise Afghanistan.
Renewed violence in Swat over the last few weeks has raised concerns that militants are regrouping in the area while the army tries to consolidate gains in other parts of the northwest and return displaced people to their homes.
Saturday’s attacker blew himself up in a hostel after being surrounded by government forces near Sohrab Khan market in the town of Mingora, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad, Swat police chief Qazi Ghulam Farooq told Reuters. He said the bomber killed himself, three civilians and two militants who had been apprehended and lead government forces to the location. Another militant was shot dead by security forces in a raid at the site.
“The Taliban may be trying to come back. But there is no way we will allow it. We will catch them everywhere,” Farooq said. The Swat operation last year involved 30,000 troops backed by airstrikes. Some 4,000 Taliban had taken control of Swat.
The scenic valley has witnessed a spate of killings of tribal elders in the past few weeks. Security officials said they appeared to be aimed at frightening the local leadership, which is supporting the army’s operations.
People have expressed fears the Taliban will return and impose their harsh version of Islamic rule — including public floggings and destruction of girls’ schools — if the army leaves and entrusts the underfunded police force with security.
The military, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, says offensives have destroyed Taliban bases, killed hundreds of fighters and driven many others from strongholds.
Those successes have eased fears that nuclear-armed Pakistan, vital ally for the United States, was sliding into chaos, but unabated bombings are still a concern.
Taliban militants often melt away during security crackdowns and retain the ability to stage suicide bombings and bomb attacks on security forces and civilians across the country.
A roadside bomb attack on a police van wounded a senior police official and five others, including three passers-by in a town in the southwestern Baluchistan province on Saturday.
Separatist militants have waged a low-key insurgency for decades in Baluchistan on the Afghan border to demand more political and economic rights, but Taliban militants have also been active in the region.