Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blast kills 42 at food aid center in Pakistan - Washington Post

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - A suicide bomber, possibly a woman, struck a food distribution center in Pakistan's restive tribal belt Saturday morning, killing at least 42 people and injuring dozens.

The attack occurred in the main city in the Bajaur area as hundreds of members of the Salarzai tribe, which had been displaced by fighting between militants and the Pakistani army, lined up to collect World Food Program rations at a government center, a local official said. The dead and injured included several children, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

A day earlier, 150 militants launched a coordinated attack on military checkpoints in the neighboring Mohmand agency, leading to a battle that left 11 Pakistani soldiers and 24 militants dead.

Both attacks underscored insurgents' continued ability to strike state targets despite various Pakistani army offensives. The army declared victory over militants in Bajaur last year, but the insurgents have reorganized.

Witnesses said the bomber who struck Saturday was dressed in a head-to-toe robe known as a burqa, leading to speculation that a woman staged the attack. Officials said they could not confirm the bomber's sex. Islamist insurgents in Pakistan, based in the semiautonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, have rarely deployed female bombers. Such a tactic would indicate a shift in strategy.

No group asserted responsibility for the attack. But insurgents have denounced the presence of all foreign relief organizations in Pakistan, and they have targeted aid distribution centers and refugee camps. Last year, the Pakistani Taliban bombed a World Food Program office in Islamabad, the nation's capital.

Militants have also focused attacks on pro-government tribes, which include the Salarzai. The tribe was the first in Bajaur to organize a pro-government militia to combat the Taliban.

Zahid Ali, a tribesman who witnessed the Saturday attack, said it occurred at a spot where security forces were searching people who wanted to enter the government compound to collect aid.

"A suicide bomber stormed into the gathering and detonated himself," said the local official, who works for the Bajaur political administration. Zakir Hussain, who heads the civilian administration in the area, could not be reached.

Brulliard reported from Islamabad.

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