PESHAWAR: A suicide bomber killed 40 people attending Friday prayers at a mosque, while a roadside bomb left four soldiers dead in Pakistan’s tribal belt - the latest violence to rock the country’s northwest as the army says it is beating back the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

The attacks came as US envoy Richard Holbrooke met with top Pakistani officials, including the Prime Minister, who requested that the US write off Pakistan’s debt to help it deal with myriad challenges including the nearly 3 million Pakistanis made refugees by the Swat offensive. Hundreds trying to return home to Swat today were stopped by troops.

Pakistani leaders insist they are serious about wiping out militancy in Swat, a one-time tourist haven that largely fell under Taliban control over the past two years. The US backs the operation and sees it as a test of the government’s resolve in taking on al-Qaida and Taliban militants along the Afghan border region. The generally broad public support in Pakistan for the operation, however, could falter if militant violence spikes in reaction.

There already have been attacks in major cities such as Peshawar and Lahore that officials suspect were revenge by the militants for Swat. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the Sunni Muslim mosque in the Haya Gai area of Upper Dir, a rough and tumble district next to Swat. It was unclear if sectarian differences played a role.

“The latest report I just got is that 30 dead bodies have been identified. I cannot say how many more are dead, but there are scores of more wounded in the blast,” Upper Dir district coordination officer Atif-ur-Rehman told The Associated Press. He said a suicide bomber was involved and that rain and the far-flung nature of the area hampered rescue work.

Afghanistan unrest, 3 children dead

KABUL: A discarded mortar shell in war-torn Afghanistan exploded among a group of children on Friday, killing three of them, police said. The children, aged between four and 10 years, touched the mortar which was left over from a clash between the Taliban and police on Thursday in the central province of Ghazni, said the police chief, Khial Baz Sherbaz.

“It went off, killing three of them and wounding one,” he told AFP. There are regular blasts involving ordnance left over from decades of war in Afghanistan, despite the efforts of mine clearing teams who have been operating in the country for years. Most of the almost daily bombings in the country, however, are linked to an insurgency being waged by the extremist Taliban movement. Elsewhere, police killed three Taliban militants in the eastern province of Paktya on Thursday, the provincial government said. — AFP