Bomb kills 29 in Pakistan as American envoy visits

Friday, February 19, 2010
Pakistani volunteers shift an injured person onto a stretcher Thursday at a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Mohammad Sajjad ~ Associated Press)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A bomb blast at a mosque in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt killed 29 people including some militants Thursday, underscoring the relentless security threat here even as Pakistani-U.S. cooperation against extremism appears on the upswing.

The attack in Khyber tribal region came as U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke met with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad, the capital. It also followed revelations that Pakistani authorities have been picking up Afghan Taliban leaders on their soil, and as the U.S. staged its latest missile strike in Pakistan's northwest.

The bomb explosion tore through a mosque in the Aka Khel area of Khyber, killing at least 29 people and wounding some 50 others, local official Jawed Khan said. Earlier reports had said the blast occurred in the Orakzai area at a cattle market.

The two areas border one another, and the market is apparently near the mosque.

Officials were still investigating whether the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber or a planted device.

No group claimed responsibility, but Khan said the dead included militants from Lashkar-e-Islam, an insurgent group in Khyber that has clashed with another militant outfit known as Ansarul Islam. Both espouse Taliban-style ideologies.

Earlier this week, officials confirmed that a joint CIA-Pakistani security operation had captured the No. 2 Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

On Thursday, an Afghan official said that around the same time -- some two weeks ago -- two Taliban leaders from northern Afghanistan also were arrested in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities. Also, officials said up to nine al-Qaida-linked militants were arrested in a series of raids overnight Wednesday in Karachi.

The U.S. and Pakistan have said very little on the record about the arrests, but they could signal a shift in Pakistani policy. Pakistan has long frustrated the Americans by either denying that the Afghan Taliban use its soil or doing little to root them out.

The arrests could mean Pakistan has decided to turn on the Afghan Taliban, a group that it helped nurture as a strategic ally against longtime rival India, though some suspect the Pakistanis were forced to act because the U.S. had solid intelligence on Baradar that it could not deny.

During a briefing with reporters in Islamabad, Holbrooke declined to give specifics on Baradar's arrest, and swatted off attempts to link its timing to efforts to negotiate with the Taliban or an ongoing U.S-led offensive in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.

"He was picked up because the information was developed. It had nothing to do with anything else," the envoy said.

He stressed that the U.S. was not in direct talks with the Taliban but supported Afghan President Hamid Karzai's efforts to reach out to the militants. He also said that Karzai appears to be on the same page as the U.S. in requiring that any deal with the Taliban involve the militants' renouncing al-Qaida.

Also Thursday, two Pakistani intelligence officials said a suspected U.S. missile strike on a house in North Waziristan tribal area killed three people. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to give information to the media.

The U.S. has stepped up a campaign of missile strikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants in recent months.

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