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Pakistan suicide attacks signal Taliban's determination

At least 20 die in two car bombings, one in Peshawar near the U.S. consulate, and one in the town of Bannu, 125 miles south. The Pakistani Taliban is thought to be regrouping after its leader's death.

September 27, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Two suicide car bomb attacks Saturday killed at least 20 people and injured more than 150 in northwest Pakistan, sending an ominous signal that the death of Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud during the summer will not curb the Islamic militants' agenda for violence in this nuclear-armed state.

The bloodiest explosion occurred in the bustling city of Peshawar, where a car bomb was detonated near a state-owned bank about 550 yards from the U.S. consulate. The blast tore through the building and surrounding structures, killing at least 10 people and wounding 91.

Most of the dead and injured were bank customers and passersby, police said. Police arrested two men, but it wasn't known what connection they were suspected of having to the blast. About 220 pounds of explosives were used in the morning attack in a parking lot in the Saddar neighborhood, authorities said.

Crumpled, charred car frames, broken glass and mangled motorcycles littered the street.

The other blast occurred in the town of Bannu, about 125 miles southwest of Peshawar. An attacker in a pickup truck rammed a barricade outside a police station, setting off an explosion that killed 10 people and injured 60, Bannu Police Chief Kamranzeb Khan said.

The blast destroyed most of the police building, Khan said.

The violence ended a lull in attacks since the Aug. 5 missile strike, believed to have been carried out by the U.S., that killed Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief responsible for overseeing many of the suicide bomb attacks and other acts of terrorism inflicted on Pakistani cities and towns.

After his death, the Taliban's movement in Pakistan found itself in disarray, as factions within the group fought over who should succeed Mahsud. In recent weeks, violence in northwest Pakistan had ebbed.

The group has since settled on one of Mahsud's deputies, Hakimullah Mahsud, as its leader. With the leadership question settled, there are growing signs that Taliban infighting has dissipated.

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, militant commander Qari Hussain Mahsud said the Taliban was once again unified and would unleash a new wave of suicide attacks if Pakistan continued to forge ahead with military operations against militants in the northwest part of the country. Hussain Mahsud is believed to be a key leader in the training of Taliban suicide bombers.

On Saturday, he told local journalists that the Taliban was responsible for the attack in Bannu.

"We maintained silence after the assassination of Baitullah to see the government's policy toward new leadership of Taliban," Hussain Mahsud said. "We are united and have proved our might by attacking the police station."

The military has been especially active in the Khyber district in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border, where an offensive backed by helicopter gunships and artillery was said to have killed dozens of militants this month.

Pakistani troops also have been able to maintain control of most of the volatile Swat Valley after flushing out Taliban militants in a three-month offensive that began in the spring.

In South Waziristan, a region along the Afghan border still largely under Taliban control, the military has attacked militant hide-outs with airstrikes but has yet to mount the ground offensive that it had said it would undertake.

Iftikhar Hussain, North-West Frontier Province information minister, said Pakistan's bid to eliminate the Taliban would continue despite the militant group's vows to ratchet up attacks.

"If we don't stop them, this will become a regular occurrence," Hussain said. "This is their reaction to operations we have launched. . . . We have to fight them and eradicate them. We're on the front lines, and we have to face this problem."

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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