DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan - A suicide attacker detonated a car bomb in a market close to a politician's home in central Pakistan yesterday, killing 33 people and showing the increasing reach of Taliban extremists in the nuclear-armed nation.
The blast came shortly before the top-ranked U.S. military officer arrived in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, for scheduled talks with the country's army chief about the ongoing military offensive against extremists in the northwestern region near the Afghan border.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Pakistan's military campaign in South Waziristan, but he had said ahead of his visit that he would take up concerns about what he called increasingly close collusion between extremists on both sides of the border.
Mullen has built a close bond with the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Last night's meeting in Islamabad is the 14th the men have held.
The insurgents, who are linked to al-Qaeda and extremists fighting U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, want to topple the U.S.-allied government in Pakistan and install a hard-line Islamist regime.
Under heavy Western pressure, the Pakistani army launched an offensive against the Taliban's main stronghold of South Waziristan in October. Extremists have retaliated with bombings that have killed 500 people, most of them civilians.
Yesterday's attack in the Punjab province town of Dera Ghazi Khan badly damaged the lawmaker's house and nearby shops and buildings, including a mosque and bank. It was unclear whether the bomber was targeting the home of the politician, who was not there at the time, or the market.
The dead and most of the injured were people shopping or working at the market.
As night fell, people searched through the debris for survivors trapped in the rubble. "The whole market has collapsed," said Raza Khan, a local resident.
Rescue official Natiq Hayat said 33 people were killed and 60 wounded. Government official Hasan Iqbal said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.
The attacker had packed the car with 900 pounds of explosives, senior police officer Mohammad Rizwan said.
Extremists have staged several attacks in Punjab, far beyond the northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Dera Ghazi Khan district is in Punjab but borders the country's three other provinces.
Extremists have mostly targeted security forces in recent months, but lawmakers and court buildings also have been attacked.
There also have been at least three bombs in crowded markets, apparently aimed at causing civilian casualties and undercutting public support for the army offensive.
A Pakistani court yesterday granted police an additional 10 days
to question five young Americans held on suspicion of links to Islamist militants, a government official said.
Authorities said they had released the father of one of the five men who was arrested along with them last week. Police had no evidence Khalid Farooq, also a U.S. citizen, had committed
a crime, the regional
law minister, Rana Sanaullah Khan, said.
The men, aged 19 to 25, were reported missing from the Washington area after their families found a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended. They were arrested in Sargodha in central Pakistan.
Police have alleged
the five intended to join extremists in the northwestern tribal areas and then travel to Afghanistan to fight U.S. and allied forces. They have not been charged with any crime.
- Associated Press