- Associated Press - Sunday, March 11, 2012

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide bomber attacked a funeral attended by an anti-Taliban politician in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, killing at least 15 mourners, officials said.

The politician, Khush Dil Khan, escaped unhurt in the blast on the outskirts of Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.

Islamist militants are fighting a vicious war against Pakistani security forces in and around Peshawar, which lies close to border regions with Afghanistan where extremists hold sway.

Thousands of civilians and security officials have been killed in the past few years in the militants attacks, which appeared to have been decreasing lately because of the Pakistani army’s operations in the tribal regions and the elimination of several key Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in U.S. drone strikes.

Police Officer Abid Rehman said the attacker managed to get inside the compound where funeral prayers were being held in Badhber village. Peshawar Deputy Commissioner Siraj Ahmad said the explosion killed 15 people and wounded another 37.

The two officials said several of the wounded people were in critical condition.

“We are devastated,” said Zahir Khan, 32, weeping while lying in a hospital bed. His elder brother died in the attack. He said they were chatting when the bomb went off. “I never knew I was going to lose my brother forever.”

Mr. Khan, the politician, comes from the secular-leaning Awami National Party, which holds power in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He expressed his party’s resolve to continue the struggle against militancy. “It is a fight for the country’s survival,” he said.

The Pakistani Taliban has targeted several of its leaders in the past. The party has supported various Pakistani military operations against the militants.

On Saturday, security forces claimed to have killed 39 militants in fighting in Bara district in Khyber tribal region, which is close to Peshawar and is the current focus of anti-Taliban operations. Four security force members also were killed, according to a brief statement from the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

The police said it was not yet clear whether the bombing could be a reaction to the latest fighting.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammad Afridi downplayed Saturday’s operation against the militants, saying that such operations “hardly matter” to the militants. He took responsibility for the Sunday suicide bombing and said the politician was targeted because he had set up a militia to battle against the Taliban.

“These militias are the front lines for the Pakistani army,” he told the Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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