Suicide bombers and militant gunmen made a concerted attack on a US diplomatic mission in the Pakistani city of Peshawar yesterday, killing at least three guards and setting off a string of explosions in an incident that underscored the continued strength of Taliban forces in the region.
The assault came shortly after a suicide blast in the town of Timergara, about 50 miles from Peshawar, killed 45 people at a political rally. No Americans were hurt in the attack on the heavily-defended US consulate, but Pakistani guards were involved in a gun battle with militants wielding mortars and grenades as well as automatic weapons, killing four of them as they successfully held off the onslaught.
As the gun battle raged, a series of four bomb blasts went off in quick succession, sending huge clouds of dust and debris into the air. According to Bashir Ahmad Bilour, the provincial senior minister, suicide belts were found on the bodies of the attackers. "They were well equipped," he told reporters outside the building later. "They had a lot of explosives."
Last night, the US embassy in Islamabad confirmed the consulate had been the target of the attack and condemned the incident. The suicide bomb in Timergara, which is in the Lower Dir district, killed attendees at an event to mark the renaming of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
"I think the militants may be trying to send two messages," said Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani military analyst. "The first is that the Taliban still has the capacity to launch attacks on big targets despite losing control of South Waziristan. The second may be a kind of reaction to the increased US operations in Afghanistan. This comes after the US and Pakistan strategic dialogue in which they agreed to greater co-operation against the Taliban."
The city of Peshawar has been the scene of countless suicide bomb attacks over the last 18 months. Many foreign aid organisations have cut back on their operations due to ongoing insecurity and the US consulate was one of just a handful of diplomatic missions still based in the city. In the summer of 2008, the US consul general in Peshawar, Lynne Tracy, survived an attack by gunmen on her bulletproof car in the city.
In yesterday's incident, it appears a group of well-armed militants engaged Pakistani guards at the consulate before detonating a number of bombs in what officials called "a well-planned assault". A spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which came just days after militants had told Pakistani journalists they were planning significant strikes.
Witnesses said the attackers had arrived near the Shama Square crossroads in the military cantonment area of Peshawar in two vehicles and that some of them were armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Ghulam Hussain, a local police officer, later told Agence France-Presse: "The target was the American consulate but didn't succeed in getting there. One of the suicide bombers blew himself up close to the gate. Police guarding the US consulate started retaliatory fire. More blasts took place. We have recovered unexploded material from four points."
Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber struck at a meeting of the Awami National Party (ANP), which was called to celebrate new legislation to rename the NWFP as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The secular party, strongly opposed to the Taliban, called for the name change to better represent the province's largely Pashtun population.
Washington has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in military aid to fight militants and is also funding a number of development projects in north-west Pakistan designed to undermine support for the Taliban. Many of these projects were overseen by officials in the consulate in Peshawar.
Since Barack Obama came to office last year, the US has increased the number of drone strikes on suspected militant targets in the region. A number of Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders have been killed by the strikes, which are deeply unpopular with locals because of the number of innocent people killed.