Suicide bomb in northwestern Pakistan kills 25

The attack, the second in two days, struck a minority Shiite area. It signaled militants’ staying power in Pakistan's northwest despite Army efforts to oust them and possible sectarian motives.

A suicide car bomb exploded in a market in northwestern Pakistan Friday, killing about 25 people and highlighting the continuing violence in Pakistan’s northwest despite government offensives aimed at dislodging Taliban militants.

The blast struck a hotel in a market area Friday in Usterzai, a small village on the outskirts of Kohat and about 40 miles from Peshawar, as families were shopping for the upcoming holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan.

It is the second attack in the area in as many days; a bomb in Kohat on Thursday wounded six people. The area has a significant Shiite population in a majority-Sunni country.

Agence France-Presse reports that the market was packed with shoppers when the bomb exploded near a bus stop, destroying shops and vehicles in the area.

The Associated Press reports that the target was a small hotel.

Initial reports put the death toll around 14, but Reuters reports it has reached at least 25 as more people were killed when buildings damaged in the blast collapsed. According to the BBC,bodies are still being pulled from the rubble.

Pakistan’s northwest has been roiled by militant activity that the government has struggled to restrict. (See a map of the region here.) The government launched an offensive against militants in the Swat Valley in April and has claimed victory, but it is suspected that many militants simply drew back to the mountains. It has, however, arrested three top Taliban leaders there. It is also raising up tribal militias to try to help defend the territory, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

The military has also launched strikes in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, where it killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud last month.

Usterzai, in the Northwest Frontier Province, is near the Orakzai tribal region, the stronghold of the new Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who replaced Baitullah Mehsud, reports the BBC. Pakistan has been bombing Taliban targets in Orakzai for the past week. The BBC reports the attack may have been sectarian.

Astarzai village, where the blast took place, is a Shia-majority area and many Shia Muslims run businesses there. It lies 18km west of the town of Kohat.
The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that Sunni militants in the area have carried out frequent attacks on minority Shias.
Sunni Muslims account for around 80% of Pakistan's population and are the dominant group in the tribal areas, although Orakzai has significant Shia numbers.

The Associated Press also reports that the area has a history of violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

The hotel hit Friday was owned by a Shiite, police official Asmat Ullah said.
The violence underscores the relentless insecurity in a region home to the Taliban and al-Qaida, whose Sunni extremism has only fueled sectarian attacks that have long plagued Pakistan.
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