Sunday, August 16, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a checkpoint in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley, killing at least five people Saturday in a reminder that extremists can still strike despite the military’s retaking of the area, police said.

It was the first suicide attack in Swat since July, when the government said its forces had mostly driven out the Pakistani Taliban from the one-time tourist area in its largest offensive against the militants in years. Hundreds of thousands of the roughly 2 million people who fled the area during the fighting have been returning amid tight security.

A day earlier, Swat residents who had come home staged celebrations of Pakistan’s independence day, waving flags and beating drums in a government-sponsored show of normalcy. In some places, women danced in the streets - an act of defiance, since the hard-line Islamist Taliban banned women from public during their rule over the valley.

Three soldiers manning the security checkpoint were killed immediately in Saturday’s attack in the town of Khawaza Khela, said senior police official Idrees Khan.

Two other people died later in a hospital, a senior security official said. One of them was a civilian, but it was not clear whether the other was also a bystander or a soldier, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

In another part of Swat, security forces killed eight militants in a search operation near Kanju town, a government statement said.

The military has been winding down its three-month offensive in Swat, although the army said it still faces pockets of militant resistance in the surrounding area. The Taliban takeover of the valley - a scenic alpine enclave that once boasted Pakistan’s only ski resort - had become a symbol of extremists’ expansion in the nuclear-armed, mostly Muslim country of 175 million.

Pakistan has said troops will remain in Swat until the fighters of Maulana Fazlullah - a notorious Taliban leader whose thousands of followers are blamed for the violence - are eliminated. Although the military says it has killed or captured a number of Fazlullah’s commanders, he himself has evaded capture.

Saturday’s suicide attack showed that the Taliban still can strike periodically, though they probably won’t be able to retake any territory as long as the army stays in Swat, political and defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

“It is a strong message from Taliban. They want to convey that it is not over,” Mr. Rizvi said.

Separately, two other security officials said Pakistani fighter jets targeted a suspected militant hide-out in South Waziristan on Saturday, killing at least five insurgents.

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