Suicide bomber kills 43 in attack on food aid centre
Sixty injured in first Pakistan blast by female as army hunts Islamic militants
A FEMALE suicide bomber detonated her explosives-laden vest killing at least 43 people at an aid distribution centre in northwestern Pakistan yesterday while army helicopter gun-ships and artillery killed a similar number of Islamic militants in neighbouring tribal regions near the Afghan border, officials said.
The bombing appeared to be the first suicide attack staged by a woman in Pakistan, and it underscored the resilience of militant groups in the country's tribal belt despite ongoing military operations against them.
The bomber struck in the main city in Bajur, a region near the Afghan border where the military has twice declared victory over Taliban and al-Qa'ida insurgents.
The bomber, dressed in a traditional women's burqa, first lobbed two hand grenades into the crowd waiting at a checkpoint outside the food aid distribution centre in the town of Khar, local police official Fazal-e-Rabbi Khan said. The attacker then detonated her explosives vest, he said.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack through its spokesman, Azam Tariq. He did not give a reason for the attack.
Khan said the victims were from various parts of the Bajur tribal region who gather daily at the centre to collect food tokens distributed by the World Food Programme and other agencies to conflicted-affected people in the region. The people were displaced by an army offensive against Taliban militants in the region in early 2009.
Islamist militants battling the state have attacked buildings handing out humanitarian aid in Pakistan before, presumably because they are symbols of the government and Western influence.
Local government official Tariq Khan said the blast also wounded 60 people, some of them critically (about 300 were at the scene).
Officials said most of the people attacked belonged to the Salarzai tribe, which was among the first to set up a militia to fight the Taliban in 2008. Other tribes later formed similar militias to resist the militants.
Tariq Khan and another local official, Sohail Khan, said an examination of the human remains has confirmed the bomber was a woman.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security and political analyst, said the suicide bombing appeared to be the first carried out by a woman in Pakistan.
"It is no surprise. They can use a woman, a child or whatever," Rizvi said.
"Human life is not important to them, only the objective they are pursuing" of undermining state power, he added. Male suicide bombers often don the burqa -- an Islamic head-to-toe dress that also covers the woman's face -- as a disguise. In 2007, officials initially claimed Pakistan's first female suicide bomber had killed 14 people in the northwest town of Bannu but the attacker was later identified as a man.
Akbar Jan (45), who sustained leg wounds in the bombing, said from his hospital bed that people were lining up for the ration coupons when something exploded with a big bang.
"We thought someone had fired a rocket," he said, adding that within seconds he saw the ground strewn with the wounded.
"I realised a little later that I myself have suffered wounds," he said. "Everybody was crying. It was blood and human flesh everywhere."
Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the bombing and said Pakistanis are "united against them".
The attack came a day after some 150 militants killed 11 soldiers in a coordinated assault in the adjoining tribal region of Mohmand where the army also has carried out operations.
Yesterday the top government official in Mohmand, Amjad Ali Khan, said helicopter gunships backed by artillery pounded militants' hideouts, killing around 40 militants.
Bajur is on the northern tip of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt, bordering Afghanistan and the so-called "settled" areas in Pakistan. It has served as a key transit point and hideout for al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.
Bajur and other parts of the tribal regions are of major concern to the US because they have been safe havens for militants fighting NATO and American troops across the border in Afghanistan. The US has long pressured Pakistan to clear the tribal belt of the insurgents.