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Bomber kills three soldiers in Pakistani Kashmir

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed three soldiers at a military school in Pakistani Kashmir on Wednesday, the military said, as 13 militants were killed in U.S. missile strikes near the Afghan border.

Security officials and military personnel stand next to the flag-draped caskets of two of three soldiers killed in a suicide bomb attack, during their funeral prayer in Rawalakot, about 140 km (100 miles) northeast of Islamabad, January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

Pakistan’s portion of the divided Kashmir region had long been free of Islamist militant violence but there have been several attacks there over the past year.

The latest attack took place near the town of Rawalakot, about 140 km (90 miles) northeast of Islamabad, near the de facto border with India, when soldiers were on their way to classes.

“The bomber detonated the explosives as he saw the soldiers coming out of their barracks,” Javed Iqbal, chief of police in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, told Reuters.

Three soldiers were killed and 12 wounded, five of them seriously, a military spokesman said.

Militant violence has intensified in Pakistan since mid-October when the army launched an offensive against Pakistani Taliban militants in their South Waziristan bastion on the Afghan border.

Hundreds of people have been killed in militant reprisal attacks, most in the northwest.

Late last month, five people were killed in a suicide attack outside a Shi’ite Muslim meeting hall during a religious procession in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

The violence in Kashmir has fueled concern the militants are trying to expand their campaign to stretch the security forces.

KASHMIR DISPUTE

The bloodshed across nuclear-armed Pakistan is a huge problem for its civilian government, already struggling with a troubled economy.

While the security forces focus on the threat from domestic Taliban, the United States wants its ally to eliminate militants who cross over into Afghanistan to attack Western forces struggling to stabilize that country.

But Pakistan has yet to mount concerted action against Afghan Taliban factions entrenched in lawless border enclaves who could provide it with leverage against the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan.

Apparently frustrated by Pakistani inaction, the United States stepped up its drone strikes in September 2008.

On Wednesday, U.S. drones fired two missiles into a militant compound in North Waziristan, an al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary on the Afghan border, killing seven militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said. It was the third strike this year after 51 last year, according to a Reuters tally.

A short while later, a drone fired another missile as militants dug through the rubble, killing another six of them, security officials said.

Separately, five militants were killed when their explosive-laden vehicle exploded accidentally in the Kurram region on the Afghan border, a government official in the region said.

President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who was killed in a suicide attack in 2007, said in a speech on Tuesday that settlement of the Kashmir dispute was vital for regional peace.

Kashmir is at the core of decades of hostility between India and Pakistan and was the cause of two of their three wars since independence from British rule in 1947. They both claim it in full but rule it in part.

India accuses Pakistan of arming and sending militants across the border to fight security forces in its part of the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.

Pakistan denies that, saying it extends political support to what it calls Kashmir’s freedom movement. Pakistan says India is helping separatist rebels in the gas-rich Baluchistan province.

India suspended a five-year-old peace process with Pakistan after an assault on the Indian city of Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants linked to the Kashmir dispute in November 2008.

Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel

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