Death toll hits seven in Pakistan blast near cinema

The death toll in a car bombing near a Pakistani movie theater climbed overnight to seven, police said today, as the military surrounded Taliban strongholds elsewhere in the northwest region bordering Afghanistan.

The attack yesterday in the main northwestern city of Peshawar also wounded 80 people, police official Farid Ullah said Entertainment venues have been frequent targets of militants, many of whom deem such places un-Islamic.

Less than a week before in Peshawar, two bombs destroyed an Internet cafe and wrecked a bus carrying handicapped children, killing at least 11 people.

The attacks came as Taliban in the nearby Swat Valley tried to resist an army operation that has gained praise from the US, which has long pressed the country to eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries along its northwest.

The army said yesterday it killed 17 suspected militants and captured four in the previous 24 hours. It also lost three troops, it said.

The offensive in Swat and surrounding areas has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to camps and the rest to stay with relatives, friends or in rented accommodation.

Some fear that the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees' plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long. The UN yesterday appealed for $543 million to provide food, schooling and health care to the displaced.

Yesterday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani downplayed the likelihood that the army would expand the offensive to the lawless, semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where militants have long had strongholds.

Reports that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said such an expansion was in the works have already led some families to leave South Waziristan tribal area, the main base of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

However, many believe it would be difficult for the army to go into another territory before it finishes clearing the Taliban from Swat, something that could take months.

"It is not like this," Gilani said in response to a reporter's question about a possible new front in the offensive. "We are not foolish to do it everywhere."

Still, Gilani insisted the government would not allow anyone to challenge its authority.

The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants in the month-old offensive in Swat and neighboring districts, but said yesterday the Taliban still control Swat's main town of Mingora; Piochar, a side-valley farther north that is a Taliban base; and several other districts.

The army said those areas are increasingly surrounded by Pakistani troops.