ISLAMABAD (AP) – A Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up near an army vehicle Friday, killing at least two soldiers in the first such assault in Pakistan’s part of divided Kashmir, marking an escalation in the militant campaign against security forces.
The military said in a statement that three other soldiers were wounded in the early morning bombing in Muzaffarabad, the region’s capital, and rushed to a nearby hospital.
Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, told The Associated Press that the assault was launched to prove that Mehsud had not been weakened by more than a week of strikes on his suspected hideouts in his tribal homeland in northwestern Pakistan.
“We are in a position to respond to the army’s attacks, and time will prove that these military operations have not weakened us,” Hakimullah Mehsud told The Associated Press by telephone.
Pakistan’s military has pounded territory Mehsud’s stronghold in South Waziristan for more than a week with bombs and artillery. The army is thought to be softening up targets in preparation for a ground offensive aimed at eliminating the Taliban leader.
Mehsud has also been the target of suspected U.S. missile attacks. Earlier this week, he narrowly escaped a drone strike in South Waziristan, a rugged, lawless region along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, that killed 80 people.
Mehsud’s group has been blamed for a series of deadly suicide attacks in Pakistan to avenge military operations against Taliban militants in the volatile northwest region.
Although Pakistan has witnessed scores of such attacks in recent months, Friday’s blast was the first in its portion of Kashmir, and marks a broadening of Mehsud’s anti-government campaign.
Talat Masood, a Pakistani military and political analyst, said Mehsud likely struck in Kashmir “to make it more difficult for the military in South Waziristan by spreading out the conflict.”
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir is divided between Pakistan and archrival India. Both nations claim the mountainous region in its entirety.
For the past 20 years, India has accused Pakistan of harboring Islamic militants in the region and helping them sneak across the boundary into its part of Kashmir to launch attacks on Indian security forces, although Pakistan has always denied giving anything more than moral and diplomatic support to the rebels.
Previous attacks have been largely confined to India’s side of the divide. Friday’s blast was unusual because Pakistani soldiers were targeted.
Also Friday, a roadside bomb exploded near a military convoy near Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, killing three soldiers and one passer-by, two local intelligence officials said. Fifteen soldiers and two civilians were also injured in the blast. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the current opposition leader, received a boost to his political comeback Friday when a court acquitted him of misuse of a helicopter during election campaigning in the 1990s, state-run Pakistan Television reported.
It was the second ruling in the past two months that lifts a ban on Sharif standing for public office. The first ban was linked to a criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against Sharif’s government by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who subsequently became president until 2008. Sharif insisted the ban was politically motivated.
Sharif heads the second largest political party in Pakistan and is expected to run either in general elections due by 2013 or in a by-election before then.
One more criminal case is pending against Sharif, but the Supreme Court has already cleared the way for him to run for office.