- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 26, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Two suicide attacks killed 16 people and wounded more than 150 in northwest Pakistan on Saturday, showing Taliban militants are still able to strike despite heightened military operations and the slaying of their leader last month.

A Taliban spokesman called Associated Press after the first bombing outside a police station to claim responsibility and warn of more blasts. He claimed the militants had been holding back on attacks but that any such “pause” was now over.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is battling al Qaeda and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border blamed for scores of attacks over the last two years. The insurgents are linked to those in Afghanistan, where violence against NATO and U.S. troops is running at record levels.

The suicide car bomb outside a police station in Bannu district destroyed the building, killing six people and wounding 70, said police chief Mohammed Farid.

Hours later, a second car bomber struck outside a bank run by an army welfare foundation in Peshawar, the largest city in the northwest, police said. Ten people were killed and 79 wounded, said Sahibzada Mohammed Anis, a senior government official.

The blast overturned vehicles, gutted buildings and scattered glass everywhere, said an AP reporter at the scene. Most of the casualties were customers in the bank or people loitering outside.

Malik Shafqat, a police officer, said the attacker also threw a hand grenade but it didn’t explode.

A third bomb exploded in the northern town of Gilgit, wounding four people, Pakistan’s SAMA news channel quoted local police Chief Ali Sher as saying. He described it as a “low-intensity bomb” but provided no further details.

Taliban spokesman Qari Hussain Mehsud urged civilians to stay away from police and security force installations.

“We have broken the silence as the government did not understand the pause in attacks, and from now there will be an increase in the number of suicide bombings,” he warned in a telephone call from an undisclosed location.

Mehsud — known for training Taliban suicide bombers — had warned of more attacks in an AP interview on Thursday, saying, “we will send suicide bombers only if the government acts against us.”

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad condemned the bombings, saying in a statement that the attacks “highlight the vicious and inhuman nature of this enemy whose true target is the democratically elected government of Pakistan and the security of all Pakistanis.”

North West Frontier Province’s information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, said the attacks would not deter the government from fighting militants. He said security forces had arrested 40 would-be suicide bombers in recent months in the northwest, thwarting efforts by the Taliban to create chaos.

“It is not only our duty … to fight this menace of terrorism, it is a responsibility of the whole world,” Hussain told reporters in Peshawar. “We are on the front line today, that’s why our blood is being shed.”

Last month, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a CIA missile strike in the northwest. While the militants have named a new leader, some have speculated the group may have lost some of its ability to stage attacks.

The strike followed a largely successful army offensive in the Swat Valley region against the Taliban there that to some extent has reassured Western governments of Pakistan’s ability and intent to fight the insurgency.

Earlier this month, the government claimed to have killed more than 150 militants in an operation in the Khyber agency, which lies close to Peshawar.

But the Taliban or affiliated Islamist militants have continued to carry out attacks in recent weeks.

Militants ambushed a convoy of prominent anti-Taliban tribal elders in Bannu district on Thursday, spraying their cars with gunfire and killing nine people. Pakistani authorities have urged tribal elders to speak out against the Taliban, and in turn the militants have killed scores of local leaders.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali, and Hussain Afzal in Parachinar contributed to this report.

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