By RIAZ KHAN, AP, May 16, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Bombs destroyed an Internet cafe, wrecked a bus carrying handicapped children and spread panic through Pakistan's main northwestern city on Saturday, killing at least 11 people in a day of carnage across the militancy-plagued region.
An apparent U.S. missile strike annihilated a Taliban raiding party mustering to cross into Afghanistan, officials said, while Pakistani troops claimed another 47 kills in their bid to retake the Swat Valley.
Violence is engulfing Pakistani territory along the Afghan border as American and allied forces crank up the pressure on al-Qaida and Taliban militants entrenched in the forbidding and barely governed mountains and valleys.
Washington and other nations are pouring in billions of dollars in aid and military assistance to prop up the pro-Western government in Islamabad, which on Saturday sought to allay concerns that its nuclear weapons could fall into extremist hands.
The first of two bombs to explode in Peshawar on Saturday was hidden in a car and devastated a street busy with traffic, shoppers and worshippers heading to mosques to pray.
Television images showed several vehicles burning fiercely and a stricken white-and-green bus that had been dropping handicapped children at their homes around the city.
All eight students still on board were injured, one seriously, along with the driver and an assistant, medics and police said. Four other children and seven adults were killed, and dozens more people injured, they said.
Ahmad Khan, a nine-year-old who had been on the bus, sat shaking on his mother's lap at the Lady Reading hospital as surgeons tried to save the life of a classmate.
He struggled to tell her what had happened to him, throwing up his arms to mimic the explosion, then burst into tears and buried his bandaged head in her arms.
"My child is mentally impaired, but we had hope for him and sent him to school. Now I am even more worried for his future," said his veiled mother, Gul Bibi. "How could any human being do this?"
Safwat Ghayur, a senior police official, said one of several buildings badly damaged by the blast was an Internet cafe — a favorite target for violent Islamist extremists in Pakistan who consider the Web a source of moral corruption.
Ghayur said the cafe had received several threats and was attacked recently by gunmen. But it was unclear if any of the bomb victims had been in the cafe or if it was the intended target.
No group claimed responsibility for the car bomb, or a smaller explosion in the evening in a bazaar filled with ladies' clothes stores that police said injured four people.
An Associated Press reporter saw bystanders carrying away a screaming man, his bloodstained clothes shredded by the blast. Women streamed out of the area clutching shopping bags and wailing children.
Militants have vowed to carry out a constant stream of attacks in Pakistan in retaliation for dozens of American missile attacks on their strongholds in Pakistan's tribal areas.
In the latest strike, Pakistani officials said several missiles hit a religious school and a nearby vehicle on Saturday morning near Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan tribal region.
Two intelligence officials, citing reports from agents in the field, said 29 people were killed, including four foreign militants, and dozens more were wounded.
The identity of the victims was not immediately clear, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the media.
However, they said the school was being used as a training camp by Gul Bahadur, a prominent Taliban commander, and that the group had been mustering for a mission in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama has identified the elimination of militant sanctuaries in Pakistan as critical if America is to crush al-Qaida and turn around its faltering Afghan war effort.
U.S. officials say the missile strikes, launched from remotely piloted aircraft, have killed a string of al-Qaida commanders in the Pakistani border region over the past year. The area is considered the likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
However, Pakistan publicly protests the tactic, arguing it kills too many civilians and undermines efforts to turn tribal leaders away from hard-liners. The army this week rejected media reports that it was jointly controlling U.S. drone missions over Pakistan.
Further north, the army was preparing to assail Taliban militants entrenched in Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley, from where nearly a million civilians have fled a three-week-old military offensive. About 100,000 are housed in sweltering camps south of the war zone.
The army says it has killed more than 800 of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley and that many more have fled, some after shaving off their beards to blend in with the refugees.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Saturday that 47 militants had been killed in the previous 24 hours and that one pocket of the valley near the town of Khwazakhela was safe enough for residents to return.
Militants had blocked roads around Mingora to hamper troops encircling the town, he said at a news conference.
The military says it is advancing slowly in Swat to limit civilian casualties. Public opinion appears to support the offensive, but the mood could quickly turn against the pro-Western government if the fighting drags on and civilian hardship mounts.
Pakistan's army is pressing the United States to give it helicopters, night-vision equipment and its own drones to boost its oft-criticized counterinsurgency capacity.
The government is also trying to counter speculation that extremists could seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons or that the U.S. might intervene to safeguard them.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani complained Saturday about an "orchestrated campaign" to "discredit Pakistan's nuclear capability."
"We are determined to retain nuclear deterrence at all cost while ensuring fail-safe security of our nuclear assets," Gilani told lawmakers, according to a statement from his office. "No amount of coercion, direct or indirect, will ever force Pakistan to compromise on its core security interest."
He didn't identify those involved in the alleged campaign.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.