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Latest Pakistan bombing kills 35; U.N. pulls out some workers

Militant violence continues with an attack on soldiers and civilians in Rawalpindi. Earlier, 15 people were injured in a suicide bombing near Lahore.

November 03, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN — Militants continued Monday to exact a price on Pakistan for the government's ongoing offensive against the Taliban near the Afghan border, killing 35 people in a suicide bombing attack on military personnel and civilian workers lined up at a bank to get their monthly wages and pension checks.

The midmorning blast in the city of Rawalpindi, just a few hundred yards from the Pakistani army's sprawling headquarters, was followed by another suicide bombing at a highway checkpoint outside the eastern city of Lahore that injured at least 15 people. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack.

The incidents followed a relentless surge in militant violence across Pakistan last month as the government launched its long-awaited military operation to crush the local Taliban in its stronghold in rugged, largely lawless South Waziristan. Nearly 300 people were killed in those attacks.

The ongoing violence led the United Nations to announce Monday that it was suspending long-term development efforts in the country's northwest and pulling out some of its non-Pakistani staff members.

Pakistani military commanders say that the offensive in South Waziristan continues to make significant progress as it hems in Taliban and Uzbek militants from three directions. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday that 12 militants had been killed in the previous 24 hours, and troops had recovered five truckloads of militant arms and explosives and destroyed two sites where roadside bombs were being made.

However, with no end in sight to the battle in South Waziristan, militant retaliatory strikes on major Pakistani cities have taken a devastating toll on everyday life in the Muslim nation of 180 million. Many private schools in Islamabad, the capital, have been shuttered for two weeks while administrators struggle to shore up security at their buildings.

Last week, the northwestern city of Peshawar was rocked by a car bombing at a market that killed 118 people and injured at least 200. The attack occurred at a bazaar filled with fabric stores and cosmetics shops, and many of the casualties were women and children.

"Our forces are fighting to get rid of the terrorists, whether it's in Waziristan or Islamabad," Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said Monday at a news conference in the capital. "This is not a small group, and these are not simple criminals. But we are fighting them."

Pakistani militants have broadened their array of targets in recent weeks. Schools across the country were shut down last month after two suicide bombers attacked a college campus in Islamabad, killing six people.

On Oct. 9, another bustling market in Peshawar was hit by a suicide attack that killed 53 people.

The target Monday appeared to be the active and retired military officials who line up each month at a branch of the National Bank of Pakistan to pick up their pension checks and wages.

The bomber drove up on a motorcycle and detonated explosives while people waited in line, said Rao Iqbal, deputy inspector general for the Rawalpindi police. At least 80 people were standing outside the bank when the blast occurred, witnesses said.

"I was inside when the blast hit and the windows of the bank came crashing in," said Muhammad Rafiq, 30, a Pakistani army official who was picking up his monthly wages. "When I came outside, there were dead and injured lying all over the street. This war on terrorism is making it difficult for us to live. We can't even go outside."

The indiscriminate nature of the recent attacks was cited by U.N. officials as one of the primary reasons why the organization was suspending its long-term aid work in the northwest, which includes Pakistan's volatile tribal areas as well as the Swat Valley, where troops fought to regain control of the region from Taliban militants over the summer.

The United Nations has lost 11 staff members in militant attacks in Pakistan this year. The latest deaths occurred Oct. 5, when a suicide bomber dressed in a paramilitary uniform walked into the lobby of the World Food Program office in Islamabad and killed five workers.

The U.N. move applies to aid programs slated to last five years or longer. In a statement, the organization said it would limit its work to humanitarian relief, emergency and security efforts and "any other essential operations as advised by the secretary-general." U.N. workers who remain in the country will be given additional security.

In the attack outside Lahore, two attackers wearing explosives-laden jackets were confronted by police at a checkpoint on a highway to the city, police said.

The militants jumped out of their car, ran toward police and detonated their explosives, said Lahore Police Chief Pervez Rathore. Two of the police officers at the checkpoint were critically injured, he said. When police inspected the car, they found about 26 pounds of explosives hidden in containers of milk and wheat.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Special correspondent Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.

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