Taliban bombers kill 70 after Pakistani border strike

Pakistan’s conflict with militants took a savage turn yesterday at the country’s main weapons complex where two suicide bombers set off blasts that killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds.

The official death toll stood at 59 but doctors said they believed more than 70 people were killed by the explosions at two gates of the arms factory in the city of Wah, 20 miles from Islamabad. Reports said the workers were changing shifts when the bombers struck.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility, saying the blasts had been committed in revenge for attacks by Pakistani military forces in the Bajaur tribal area, close to the border with Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of the area in recent weeks as government forces have pounded Bajaur with airstrikes in an attempt to kill militants.

Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant umbrella group, said similar attacks will be mounted in Islamabad and Karachi unless the military halts operations. “Only innocent people die when the Pakistan army carries out airstrikes in Bajaur or Swat,” he said.

The conflict with extremists appears to be getting worse. Pakistan’s civilian government, under pressure from the US and other Western countries, has undertaken to try to destroy extremists in the tribal areas and prevent fighters from crossing into Afghanistan and attacking on Western troops.

But the tribal areas are remote and dangerous, and the military has suffered setbacks. The West has criticised efforts by Pakistan’s civilian government to broker a peace deal with the militants.

There is much political uncertainty in Pakistan, not been eased by the resignation this week of Pervez Musharraf, who said he was standing down as President to avoid impeachment. The civilian coalition government, made up of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by Asif Ali Zardari, and the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan’s Muslim League-N (PML-N), had said it would charge him with subverting the constitution and economic mismanagement.

But the relationship between the two parties is not entirely happy. Mr Sharif is demanding the reinstatement of Pakistan’s former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and other judges sacked by Mr Musharraf. Mr Zardari is less than keen to reinstate Mr Chaudhry but reports suggest Mr Sharif has said that unless the PPP acts on this by today he will leave the government.

Another issue on which the two parties are likely to be divided is Mr Musharraf’s replacement. A PPP spokeswoman, Farzana Raja, said: “The majority of the party thinks that Asif Zardari should be president,” she said.

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