By Azhar Masood
A suspected female suicide bomber killed at least 43 people in a crowd receiving food at an aid distribution center in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, officials said.
Seventy others were injured in the attack at Khar, the main town in Bajaur tribal district, where government forces are fighting Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants.
Army helicopter gunships and artillery killed more than 40 militants in neighboring tribal regions near the Afghan border, officials said.
Local government official Imtiaz Khan said about 300 people were gathered to receive food when the bomber struck. “According to initial reports, the bomber was a woman wearing a burqa.”
“Forty-three people have been confirmed dead while more than 70 people are injured. Seven to eight people are in critical condition,” Afif Khan, a medical officer at Emergency Department in Khar’s main hospital, said.
A witness, Wasi Ullah, said a burqa-clad woman aged 22 or 23 years first hurled hand grenades when stopped by security guards at the gate, where she detonated her explosives.
“Police asked for her identity, but she ran toward the center and lobbed hand grenades at the police,” top government official in Mohmand, Amjad Ali Khansaid.
“She exploded herself when she reached the crowd” of about 300.
Khan said six policemen were among the 43 killed and more than 102 people were wounded, at least 30 critically.
“Her body parts including hands and feet were seen lying near the gate,” he said. It was only the third known suicide attack in Pakistan by a woman.
The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack through its spokesman, Azam Tariq.
Tariq suggested that the victims were targeted because most belonged to the Salarzai tribe, which was among the first to set up a militia — known as a lashkar — to fight the Taleban in 2008. Other tribes later formed similar militias to resist the militants. “All anti-Taleban forces — like lashkars, army and security forces — are on our target,” Tariq said.
“We will strike them whenever we have an opportunity.”
Police said the victims were from various parts of the Bajur tribal region who gather daily at the aid center to collect food tokens distributed by the World Food Program and other agencies to conflicted-affected people in the region. The people were displaced by an army offensive against Taleban militants in the region in early 2009.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security and political analyst, said, “It is no surprise. They can use a woman, a child or whatever,” Rizvi said.
“Human life is not important to them, only the objective they are pursuing” of undermining state power, he added.
Akbar Jan, 45, who sustained leg wounds in the bombing, said from his hospital bed that people were lining up for the ration coupons when something exploded with a big bang. “We thought someone had fired a rocket. But within seconds I saw the ground strewn with the wounded,” he said.
“I realized a little later that I myself have suffered wounds,” he said. “Everybody was crying. It was blood and human flesh everywhere.”
Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned the bombing and said Pakistanis are “united against them.”
The bombing came a day after 150 Taleban fighters carried out coordinated attacks on five security posts in Mohmand in which 11 soldiers and 24 militants died, officials said.
In retaliation, military helicopters pounded insurgent positions Saturday and killed at least 40 militants.
“So far 40 militants have been killed by our forces,” said Amjad Ali Khan. “The operation is still going on.”