- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | A suicide bomber demolished a mosque packed with hundreds of worshippers attending Friday prayers near the Afghan border, killing at least 48 people and injuring scores more, in the bloodiest attack in Pakistan this year.

The bomber struck at the climax of the service, as the mosque leader was starting the communal prayer, witnesses said.

“As the prayer leader said ‘God is great’, the bomb went off with a big bang,” said Nadir Shah, a local paramilitary solider attending the mosque. “I felt it was the end of everything. Sometime later when I opened my eyes, I was lying among dead bodies.”

The blast in the fabled Khyber Pass came hours before President Obama unveiled a revised strategy to “disrupt, defeat and dismantle” the al Qaeda terrorist organization and the Taliban operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest.

A government official accused Islamic militants of carrying out the bombing in revenge for a recent offensive aimed in part at protecting the major supply route for NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan that passes in front of the mosque. Several of the dead were local security officers who were praying there, officials said.

“Residents of this area had cooperated and helped us a lot. These infidels had warned that they will take revenge,” said Tariq Hayat, the top administrator of the Khyber tribal region. “They are the enemy of Pakistan. They are the enemy of Islam.”

Rising violence in Pakistan is fueling doubts about the pro-Western government’s ability to counter Taliban and al Qaeda militants also blamed for attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

The bomber hit the mosque, a popular stop for travelers motoring between Pakistan and Afghanistan, when about 250 people were attending Friday prayers, Mr. Hayat said.

He said rescuers had pulled 48 bodies from the rubble and predicted the toll would likely rise further. Another 80 people were injured, he said. Several police officers who had been manning a nearby checkpoint were reportedly among the victims.

The mosque, in a rocky valley near the town of Jamrud, lies on the main road along which trucks carry vital supplies to the expanding U.S.-led force in Afghanistan.

Suspected Taliban militants have carried out a string of attacks on both trucks and transport depots along the route in recent months, destroying scores of military vehicles, including Humvees, and raising doubts about the reliability of the supply line.

Frustrated at Pakistan’s failure to gain control of the border belt, the U.S. has carried out an intense campaign of missile strikes into the region since last year.

President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday reiterated Pakistan’s opposition to the strikes, apparently carried out by unmanned CIA aircraft. The government says the attacks feed anti-American feeling and undermine its own effort to isolate extremists.

“We hope Obama is a name for change,” Mr. Zardari told reporters in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, a region that some have speculated will be the next target of the drone attacks.

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