- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A bomb blast on Tuesday at a mosque in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt killed 29 people, including some militants. The bombing underscored the relentless security threat here even as Pakistani-U.S. cooperation against extremism appears on the upswing.

The attack in the Khyber tribal region came as U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke met with Pakistan’s prime minister in Islamabad, the capital. It also followed revelations that Pakistani authorities have been picking up Afghan Taliban leaders on their soil as the United States continues a campaign of missile strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan.

The explosion tore through a mosque in the Aka Khel area of Khyber, killing at least 29 people and wounding some 50 others, local official Jawed Khan said. Earlier reports said the blast occurred in the Orakzai area at a cattle market.

The two areas border each other, and the market is apparently near the mosque.

Officials were still investigating whether the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber or a planted device.

No group claimed responsibility, but Mr. Khan said the dead included militants from Lashkar-e-Islam, an insurgent group in Khyber that has clashed with another militant outfit known as Ansarul Islam. Both espouse Taliban-style ideologies.

Earlier this week, officials confirmed that a joint CIA-Pakistani security operation had captured the No. 2 Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

On Thursday, an Afghan official told the Associated Press that around the same time — some two weeks ago — two Taliban leaders from northern Afghanistan also were arrested in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities. Also Thursday, officials said up to nine al Qaeda-linked militants were arrested in a series of raids overnight Wednesday in Karachi.

The United States and Pakistan have said very little on the record about the arrests, but they could signal a shift in Pakistani policy. Pakistan long has frustrated the Americans by either denying that the Afghan Taliban use its soil or doing little to root it out.

The arrests could mean that Pakistan has decided to turn on the Afghan Taliban, a group that it helped nurture as a strategic ally against longtime rival India, though some suspect the Pakistanis were forced to act because the United States had solid intelligence on Baradar that it could not deny.

The arrests came as Western and Afghan troops fight the Taliban for control of Marjah town in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told Mr. Holbrooke that the United States should take into account Pakistan’s concerns that the Marjah offensive could lead to Afghan refugees and militants heading to Pakistan’s southwest and northwest, according to Mr. Gilani’s office.

The pair also discussed U.S. humanitarian aid efforts, with Mr. Gilani pressing for a quicker release of funds. The United States has pledged $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over the next five years.

Talking with reporters in Kabul on Wednesday, Mr. Holbrooke said the United States was restructuring the way it doles out aid to Pakistan and intends to consult more with the Pakistanis and pursue more visible projects.

“It is very, very time-consuming work because of the huge, long lead times of contracts, because of the congressional role,” he said.

Also Thursday, two Pakistani intelligence officials said a suspected U.S. missile strike on a house in the North Waziristan tribal area killed at least three people. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to give information to the media.

The CIA has stepped up a campaign of missile strikes from unmanned planes that have killed dozens of suspected militants in recent months.

Hussein Afzal reported from Parachinar, Pakistan. Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Pakistan; Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan; and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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