PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A burqa-clad suicide bomber attacked a crowd of people waiting for aid in Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least 40 of them, officials said, showing militants’ ability to strike despite army offensives.
The attack in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border came a day after fierce clashes between Pakistani Taliban insurgents and security forces in the neighboring Mohmand region that left 11 soldiers and 24 militants dead.
“I myself have counted 40 bodies but the death toll could rise as several wounded people are in critical condition,” Dosti Rehman, an official at the main government hospital in Bajaur, told Reuters.
Zakir Hussain, the top government official in Bajaur, confirmed the death toll and said 60 tribesmen were wounded. He said the death toll could rise as some of the wounded were in critical condition. Several women and children were among casualties, officials said.
The suicide bomber, who was wearing a head-to-toe burqa but whose gender has not been ascertained, detonated explosives as hundreds of people from the Salarzai tribe were heading toward a food distribution center. The World Food Programme (WFP) set up the center for people forced from their homes by earlier fighting between security forces and al Qaeda-linked militants.
A WFP spokesman said the attack took place where people were being screened at a security checkpoint near their center.
Witnesses said the attacker first threw hand grenades at tribesmen before detonating the bomb.
“First there were two small explosions and people started running for cover. But within seconds there was a major blast and there were dead bodies scattered everywhere,” witness Hussain Ahmed said. “It was very terrifying.”
The Salarzais are a major regional anti-Taliban tribe, which has been backing army operations against the militants.
Militants have infested Pakistan’s volatile ethnic Pashtun tribal lands on the Afghan border, and the army has mounted a series of operations to dislodge them.
Salarzai tribesmen have been instrumental in raising lashkars, or tribal militia, to back the government’s operations against the militants.
A Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was retaliation for “Salarazais activities against the Taliban.”
Militants have attacked pro-government tribes in the past to punish them for supporting the government.
Hundreds of militants have been killed and many of their strongholds captured but the insurgents have shown they are able to strike back and have killed hundreds of people in a campaign of bomb attacks across the country.
On Friday, about 150 Taliban militants staged simultaneous attacks on five paramilitary checkpoints in the Baizai area of the Mohmand tribal agency, killing 11 soldiers and wounding a dozen, officials said.
At least 24 militants were killed by defending paramilitary forces but government officials said the militant death toll rose to 40 as 16 more insurgents were killed in air raids by the security forces.
A Taliban spokesman on Friday confirmed clashes but disputed the official death toll, saying only two of their fighters were killed.
Officials have claimed several times that militants have been driven out of Bajaur. A senior military official in October said it would take at least six months to clear militants from Bajaur and Mohmand.
(Additional reporting by Izaz Mohmand and Sahibzada Saeed-ur-Rehman; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Daniel Magnowski)