A female suicide bomber detonated her explosives-laden vest killing at least 43 people at an aid distribution centre in north-western Pakistan, while army helicopter gunships and artillery killed a similar number of Islamic militants in neighbouring tribal regions near the Afghan border, officials said.
The bombing appeared to be the first suicide attack staged by a woman in Pakistan, and it underscored the resilience of militant groups in the country’s tribal belt despite ongoing military operations against them.
The bomber struck in the main city in Bajur, a region near the Afghan border where the military has twice declared victory over Taliban and al Qaida insurgents. It also came a day after some 150 militants killed 11 soldiers in a co-ordinated assault in the adjoining tribal region of Mohmand where the army also has carried out operations.
Amjad Ali Khan, a senior government official in Mohmand, said helicopter gunships backed by artillery pounded hideouts on Saturday, killing 40 militants.
In Bajur, the bomber, dressed in a traditional women’s burqa, first lobbed two hand grenades into the crowd waiting at a checkpoint outside the food aid distribution centre in the town of Khar, local police official Fazal-e-Rabbi Khan said. The attacker then detonated her explosives vest.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack through its spokesman, Azam Tariq. He did not give a reason for the attack.
Mr Khan said the victims were from various parts of the Bajur tribal region who gather daily at the centre to collect food tokens distributed by the World Food Programme and other agencies to conflicted-affected people in the region. The people were displaced by an army offensive against Taliban militants in the region in early 2009.
Local government official Tariq Khan said the blast also wounded 102 people, some of them critically, of about 300 who were at the scene. Tariq Khan and another local official, Sohail Khan, said an examination of the human remains has confirmed the bomber was a woman.
Officials said most of the people attacked belonged to the Salarzai tribe, which was among the first set up a militia to fight the Taliban in 2008. Other tribes later formed similar militias to resist the militants.
Prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the bombing and said Pakistanis are “united against them.”