A pair of suicide bombers struck outside a government office Friday in a tribal region where the army has fought the Taliban, killing 62 people and wounding 111 in one of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan this year.
The attack, possibly aimed at some anti-Taliban tribal elders, showed that Islamist militants remain a potent force in the northwest tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, despite army offensives and U.S. missile strikes aimed at wiping them out. Washington is watching closely how Pakistan handles its militant crisis, pushing the South Asian country to wage war on Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who use its territory to plan attacks inside Afghanistan.
The bombers detonated their explosives near the Yakaghund village office of Rasool Khan, a deputy administrator of the Mohmand tribal region, who escaped unharmed. A group of tribal elders, including those involved in setting up militias to fight the Taliban, were in the building at the time. None was hurt, according to Mohmand chief administrator Amjad Ali Khan.
Some 70 to 80 shops were damaged or destroyed, while damage to a prison building allowed 28 prisoners — ordinary criminals, not militants — to flee, Rasool Khan said. One of the bombs appeared fairly small but the other was huge, and they went off within seconds of each other, officials said. At least one bomber was on a motorcycle.
Video footage showed dozens of men searching through piles of yellow brick and mud rubble for survivors. Women and children were among the victims.
Near the attack site, officials had been distributing wheelchairs to disabled people and equipment to poor farmers, Amjad Ali Khan said. It was unclear how many participants in that event were among the victims.
Khan disputed reports that the aid was provided through U.S. funding, saying it came from Pakistani government funds. However, U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire confirmed that, on the previous day, Pakistani staff from a Washington-based contractor that receives USAID money had been giving out farm equipment in the village.
The staff of that contractor, AED or Academy for Educational Development, are staying in the area, but are not believed to have been the targets Friday.
Rasool Khan said 62 people died and 111 were wounded, making it the deadliest attack in Pakistan since a team of gunmen and suicide bombs stormed two mosques of the Ahmadi sect in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 97 people in late May. That was one of a series of several deadly strikes in Punjab this year.
Abdul Wadood was sitting in a vehicle in Yakaghund when the attack happened.
"I only heard the deafening blast and lost consciousness," said the 19-year-old, who was being treated for head and arm wounds in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) away from the attack. "I found myself on a hospital bed after opening my eyes. I think those who planned or carried out this attack are not humans."
Security official Esa Khan said the sounds were deafening.
"After the blast, I saw destruction. I saw bodies everywhere. I saw the injured crying for help," he told The Associated Press in Peshawar, where he helped escort some of the wounded.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Friday's attack, but Mohmand is one of several areas in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt where Taliban and al-Qaida members are believed to be hiding.
The Pakistani army has carried out operations in Mohmand, but it has been unable to root out the militants. Its efforts to rely on citizen militias to take on the militants have had limited success there.
Information from the tribal belt is difficult to verify independently because access to the area is heavily restricted.
Generally speaking, there have been fewer attacks in Pakistan this year compared to previous years. In the last three months of 2009, for instance, more than 500 people were killed in a surge of attacks in the country.
The attacks that have occurred this year have inflicted extraordinary casualties.
The first big attack occurred on New Year's Day, when a suicide car bomber struck a sports event near a meeting of tribesmen who supervise an anti-Taliban militia near Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area. At least 96 people were confirmed dead, though several others were missing and presumed dead.
But some of the worst attacks in 2010 have occurred far from the northwest, in cities such as Karachi in the south and Lahore in eastern Punjab province. Several have been sectarian in nature, though the Pakistani Taliban — who are extremist Sunni Muslims — are believed to have played a role in some or been affiliated with the offenders.
Last week in Lahore, two suicide bombers attacked Pakistan's most famous Sufi shrine, known as Data Darbar. The attack killed 47 people and sparked protests among Pakistanis, most of whom practice a moderate, Sufi-influenced form of Islam.
The attacks in Punjab have prompted Pakistan's government to agree to an all-parties conference on how to cope with the terrorist menace on their soil.
Still, the main bases of militant groups in Pakistan are believed to be in the northwest, particularly the tribal regions where the government has long had little influence.
Pakistani army offensives in the region are believed to have contributed to a decrease in attacks this year, as are U.S. missile strikes believed to have taken out some Taliban and al-Qaida operatives and kept the survivors on the run. But violence has continued to flare up regardless.
Also Friday, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed, a committee member, met with Pakistani officials in Islamabad to discuss their countries' cooperation in the fight against extremists.
In a statement issued after he met the American lawmakers, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said both countries should try harder to increase mutual trust.
He said Pakistan was doing its utmost to combat militancy, and "expected friendly countries like (the) U.S. to share with it credible and actionable information rather than indulging in blame game, in order to achieve our shared and common goal of succeeding against militancy."
Over the past decade Pakistan and the U.S. have frequently questioned each other's motives in the region.
Pakistan has been suspected of fomenting problems in Afghanistan as a part of its regional struggle with India, while Islamabad has suggested that Washington gives favorable treatment to New Delhi in areas such as nuclear armament.
In a reference to its larger archrival, Gilani said the U.S. should take a "fair and nondiscriminatory approach ... in its relations with the regional countries."
In recent visits to Pakistan, U.S. officials have stressed that the relationship between the two countries has improved.