Pakistan is reeling under a wave of suicide attacks that has in just over a week hit the country's military headquarters, a U.N. office in Islamabad, a crowded urban market and now a rural military patrol, killing nearly 120 people since Oct. 5. The attacks come after a relatively quiet summer and have served as a stark reminder of the threat still posed by Islamist militants, despite recent military efforts to beat them back.
Pakistani officials say the attacks are likely to hasten the start of a long-planned ground offensive against a major Taliban stronghold in the South Waziristan tribal area, which lies on the Afghan border. The area has been under heavy air and artillery bombardment from the military for months.
The attack also comes after Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi left for Washington amid a political furor in Islamabad over the conditions attached to a $7.5 billion U.S. aid package. Unlike previous no-strings-attached aid packages, the latest stipulates that Pakistan's military must be firmly under civilian control and take action against militants on its soil. The conditions have sparked an anti-American backlash in Pakistan and boosted critics of President Asif Ali Zardari, who accuse him of bowing to U.S. demands.
Monday's attack took place in the northwestern Shangla district when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden car next to a military vehicle in a market, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of North West Frontier Province. Shangla is located in the province.
Among the 41 people killed were six members of the security forces, officials said. Another 45 people were wounded.
Habibullah Khan, 34 years old, said he was at a security checkpoint on the edge of the market when the blast went off. "It was mayhem. We could not recognize who is dead and who is injured," he said in a telephone interview.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But suspicion immediately fell on the Taliban, who earlier this year were pushed from the Swat Valley, adjacent to Shangla, by a military offensive that won U.S. praise.
The military is still mopping up resistance in Swat, where many Taliban are believed to have melted back into the population and to still pose a threat.
Mr. Hussain said the attacks would not stop the army from moving against the Taliban faction in South Waziristan that has taken credit for much of the violence of the past week and is blamed for the vast majority of terror attacks in Pakistan over the past two years.
"We will continue our fight till the death of the last terrorist," he said.
The Taliban reiterated a warning Monday that there would be more terror attacks if the military did not abandon plans for the offensive, the Associated Press reported.
The group, in a phone call to the AP, again claimed responsibility for the weekend's 22-hour hostage crisis at military headquarters just outside Islamabad. The attack began with a 45-minute gun battle and ended early Sunday when army commandos freed 39 soldiers and civilians held hostage by the militants. At least 23 people were killed in the violence.
The Taliban said the raid had been carried out by a branch from Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. The army had said Sunday that it captured the ringleader of the assault and that he was a member of a banned Punjabi militant group.
The Taliban's announcement was a reminder that violent militancy aimed a destabilizing the nuclear-armed South Asian nation has spread beyond the mountainous northwest where the Taliban have flourished and into Pakistan's heartland.
"This was our first small effort and a present to the Pakistani and American governments,'' said Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban, in the phone call to the AP.
The spokesman for Pakistan's military, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told reporters Monday that the militants had hoped to take senior officers hostage and trade them for imprisoned jihadis.