Militancy rages on Pak-Afghan border

Peshawar, December 28:

A suicide bomber pretending to need help with his car killed 26 people in northwest Pakistan today, officials said, underscoring concerns that militant violence near the Afghan border could escalate now that Pakistan is shifting troops away from the region toward India.

The explosion at a polling station also wounded 15 people in Buner, a district bordering Swat, a valley where Pakistan’s army has waged a stop-start offensive against insurgents for more than a year, police official Beharmand Khan said. The building targeted was a school, where voters were casting ballots in a by-election for a National Assembly seat.

“The suicide attacker pulled his car outside the polling station, and asked people to push the vehicle, saying that it had broken down. His purpose was to gather the maximum people around the car. The moment people started pushing the car, he blew it up,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of the North West Frontier Province. He said the attack was a message to the world that: “It is not possible to hold a peaceful election in this country.” Today’s bombing followed reports that Pakistan’s army has restricted military leave and was redeploying thousands of troops away from the northwest - where many al-Qaida and Taliban

militants are based - toward the eastern border with India amid tensions over last month’s attacks in Mumbai.

Leading Pakistani newspapers warned in editorials today that Pakistan is taking a huge gamble if it lets the deteriorating relations with India distract it from battling militants in the northwest, where it also is engaged in an offensive in the lawless tribal belt.

Pakistan “just cannot afford to redeploy any large number of its troops on the eastern border, leaving the ‘wild’ west in a free fall,” wrote Dawn, a leading English-language paper. “Isn’t that the area where the world’s best intelligence says the extremist militants are holed up in significant numbers and planning to strike targets everywhere? They cannot be allowed a breather at a time when military operations are ongoing to clear the area of their roguish presence.”

But most analysts say another war is unlikely because both countries have too much to lose. Some speculate, however, that the Mumbai attackers sought to distract Pakistan from its troubles along the Afghan frontier.