- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide bomber killed at least 30 people and wounded 40 attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Pakistan’s northwest, violence that came as the country’s leaders urged a visiting U.S. envoy for more aid to stave off Taliban-led militancy.

The attack also occurred as the Pakistani army said it had made more gains in the nearby Swat Valley, an operation that the army chief said had “decisively turned” in the military’s favor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast at the Sunni Muslim mosque in the Haya Gai area of Upper Dir, a rough and tumble district next to Swat.

Police said a man wearing an explosive vest entered the mosque but was recognized by some worshipers as a stranger. When they confronted the man, he blew himself up, said Atlass Khan, a police official in Upper Dir.

Local police Chief Ejaz Ahmad said the confirmed death toll was 30, but “there are more body parts, which may make another four to six bodies” and the final tally could reach 40. Another 40 were wounded, some critically, Ahmad told The Associated Press by phone.

Pakistani leaders insist they are serious about wiping out militancy in the northwest, especially in the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven that the Taliban took over in the past two years. Washington backs the operation, seeing it as a test of Pakistan’s resolve to beat al-Qaida and Taliban militants implicated in attacks on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

But the generally broad public support in Pakistan for the operation could falter if militant violence spikes in reaction or if the government fails to successfully resettle some 3 million refugees from the fighting.

There already have been attacks in Peshawar and Lahore that officials say were revenge by the militants for Swat.

Atif-ur-Rehman, a top official in Upper Dir’s government, blamed the Taliban for the latest attack.

“It is obvious. They are Taliban,” he told the AP. “We can say it seems to be a reaction to the offensive in Swat.”

Also Friday, four soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in South Waziristan, according to two intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

South Waziristan is a tribal region bordering Afghanistan that some suspect will be the next site of Pakistani military action against the Taliban. The military insists the Taliban are attacking troops there to distract the army from Swat.

Many of civilians displaced from the Swat offensive have been impatient to return home.

An AP reporter saw hundreds of Swat residents at Got Koto, an area just outside the valley, on Friday. The residents had heard reports the government would lift a curfew in the main town of Mingora to let them go back. But security forces on a main road stopped them, saying they could not allow civilians back in yet.

“I want nothing from the government. I only want that we should be allowed to go back to our Mingora city,” said Dilawar Khan, 40, as his four children and two wives stood by him under the shade of a tree. Khan and his family had been staying at a relief camp in Mardan.

Zubayda Bibi, one of the wives, complained about conditions at the camps. “We can no longer sit at the camps where there is only dust, diseases and heat,” she said. Even if damaged, “home is better than anything.”

The army launched the Swat offensive about month ago after militants undermined a peace deal by infiltrating a neighboring district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

The offensive has also covered the areas of Buner and Lower Dir.

About 160,000 of the displaced Pakistanis are now living in relief camps. The U.S. has pledged $110 million to help the refugees and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke this week announced plans for $200 million more.

In a meeting with Holbrooke on Friday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani asked that the U.S. write off Pakistan’s debt, according to a statement from Gilani’s office.

Holbrooke did not directly address the request in a news conference Friday, but said he would meet Treasury and State Department officials when he returns to Washington “to see what additional things we can do to assist Pakistan in terms of its IMF obligations, its World Bank obligations and its extraordinarily difficult economic situation.”

Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said this week that major population centers and roads leading to the valley were rid of Taliban resistance. But he said security forces were still hunting top Taliban commanders and that isolated incidents of violence would likely continue.

Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, and Munir Ahmad, Asif Shahzad and Ashraf Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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