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17 dead in suicide bomb blast

A pickup truck packed with explosives blew up a security checkpoint in Pakistan's volatile north-west today, killing at least 17 people and injuring 80 in an attack possibly intended for a more important target, officials said.

The suicide attack occurred on the outskirts of Peshawar on the day Pakistani MPs voted for a new president, underscoring the challenges facing a country the US has pressured to crack down on insurgents.

Television footage showed a blast crater three feet deep and destroyed vehicles and pieces of debris scattered across a large area. Officials said many people were trapped under the rubble of damaged buildings in a nearby market. Civilians dug frantically with their hands in hopes of finding survivors.

Nasirulmulk Bangash, a top police official in the area, said the vehicle carried at least 330 pounds of explosives - an amount he called "unprecedented" - and was apparently en route to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province.

The amount of explosives indicated the attack was aimed at a higher-value target than the small checkpoint, but might have been tripped up by high security on election day, Mr Bangash said, without speculating on what the intended target might have been.

At least 17 people died and around 80 were wounded, including 15 who were in critical condition, said Sahib Gul, an official at Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. Several of the dead were believed to be police manning the post.

Sher Zaman, 15, told The Associated Press from a hospital bed that he was selling fruit from a cart at the market when he heard a large explosion and was knocked down when something hit him in the chest. He said residents quickly gathered and helped transport casualties to hospitals.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast.

In recent weeks, however, the Pakistani Taliban have said they were to blame for a string of suicide bombings they called revenge for military offensives in the north-west region, which borders Afghanistan. One attack killed nearly 70 people at a major weapons factory.

Pakistan has struggled to contain rising militancy in its borders, and the fledgling government has tried both peace talks and military operations to stop the insurgents.

It's an effort watched closely by the US, which says that militants have safe havens in Pakistan's north-west from which they plan attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan.

A recent US-led ground cross-border assault on a Pakistani tribal region, said to have killed at least 15 people, prompted protests from the government and angered many Pakistanis.

Asif Ali Zardari, widower of murdered ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, won the presidency. He has vowed to be tough on militancy.