- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

KOHAT, Pakistan | A suicide car bomber destroyed a two-story hotel in northwest Pakistan Friday, killing 29 people and underscoring the relentless security threat to the region.

The blast on the outskirts of the town of Kohat wounded 55 others. It was the second attack in two days in the area, which is close to Pakistan’s rugged border region with Afghanistan where al Qaeda and Taliban militants hold sway.

The attack took place in the Shi’ite-dominated village of Usterzai, raising speculation that it may have been a sectarian assault by Sunni extremists. It occurred just days before Muslims from both sects celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Islamist militants have also staged bombings in public places in the northwest to warn locals from cooperating with security forces, or punish them for already doing so.

The Hikmat Ali Hotel - owned by a Shi’ite - was among several buildings destroyed or badly damaged, police official Asmat Ullah said. At least eight cars were mangled by the force of the blast, witnesses said.

Sunni extremist groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda believe Shi’ites are infidels, and their influence in Pakistan in recent years has fueled sectarian attacks that have long plagued Pakistan.

Pakistan has launched several offensives against extremist groups in the area over the past year, but attacks persist. The U.S. is particularly anxious for Pakistan to clamp down on insurgents it says are behind attacks on American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

No one claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack in Kohat, a garrison town about 40 miles south of Peshawar, Pakistan’s main northwestern city.

Kohat police official Ali Hasan Khan said four more bodies were retrieved from the rubble late Friday, raising the death toll to 29. Another 55 people were wounded and hospitalized, he said.

On Thursday, six people were wounded when a bomb planted outside a shop in Kohat’s main bazaar exploded.

Despite Friday’s attack, Pakistan’s military has made gains in the region over the past year. A four-month-old army offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley has - according to the military - killed more than 1,800 suspected militants, while at least three top leaders of the Swat Taliban have been arrested.

Suspected U.S. missile attacks have also played a significant role in neutralizing the insurgency, including the Aug. 5 CIA drone strike that killed Taliban chieftain Baitullah Mehsud.

Officials said Thursday they believed the al Qaeda operations chief for Pakistan and a top Uzbek militant were killed in missile attacks in the northwest earlier this month. A Pakistani patrol killed 10 Taliban attempting to infiltrate Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora on Thursday.

Government officials say the army is also closing in on Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, whose radio broadcasts have long spread fear among residents of the valley.

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