- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | An attacker wearing an explosive vest blew himself up inside a packed mosque during Friday prayers, killing at least 30 and wounding 40 more in northwest Pakistan, officials said.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but a local government official blamed the Taliban and said it was probably retaliation for a Pakistani military offensive against militants in the Swat Valley region.

It was not clear whether any military figures or prominent anti-Taliban local officials were in attendance at the Sunni mosque in the village of Haya Gai in Upper Dir, a rough-and-tumble district next to Swat. The village is about 65 miles north of Peshawar and about 30 miles northwest of Mingora, the largest city in the Swat Valley.

The Taliban has threatened a campaign of revenge attacks for the offensive. Although most of the bombings have targeted security forces, militants have also targeted civilians — most recently, a marketplace blast in Peshawar that killed six civilians.

The motive for such attacks on civilians is rarely clear, but it could be in part an attempt to use violence and intimidation to weaken public support for the army’s operation.

Police said a man wearing an explosives vest entered the mosque and some worshippers said he was a stranger. When they confronted the man, he blew himself up, said Atlass Khan, an Upper Dir police official.

Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan have killed large groups of civilians in attacks directed anywhere that people gather, including mosques and funerals. On March 27, a suicide bomber blew up a packed mosque near the Afghan border during Friday prayers, killing 48 people and wounding scores more.

Pakistan launched its Swat offensive in late April, after the Taliban violated a peace deal with the government that gave them control of the valley by advancing into nearby Buner district just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

Washington strongly backs the operation and sees it as a test of Pakistan’s resolve to beat al Qaeda 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 widens or if the government fails to successfully resettle some 3 million refugees from the fighting.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Friday the offensive appeared to be clearing Swat of militants, though handling the refugee crisis would be “the real test” of success.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the situation in Swat would improve in the next few months, but in the meantime, it was better for residents to stay away.

“Obviously, there was a war in that area, there is no electricity, there is a problem of water, structure of other civic facilities are destroyed,” Mr. Malik told reporters in Islamabad.

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