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Suicide blast kills 75 at outdoor match

| Saturday, Jan. 2, 2010

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — At least 75 civilians were killed and dozens more wounded Friday when a bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle at an outdoor volleyball game in northwest Pakistan, police said. The attack apparently was aimed at members of an anti-Taliban "peace committee" that has been challenging the influence of insurgents, officials and town elders said.

The bombing took place as a crowd of more than 200 people watched a match between local teams about 20 miles south of the town of Lakki Marwat in the North-West Frontier Province. The site is not far from South Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have been battling Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in recent months at the urging of U.S. leaders.

The bomber drove a double-cabin pickup truck packed with 550 pounds of high-intensity explosives onto the field located in a densely populated neighborhood, police said. Witnesses said the ground was littered with human flesh and that several bodies were damaged beyond recognition.

The force of the blast rocked the area, destroying several nearby houses. Survivors struggled to free badly wounded victims and corpses from the rubble. Several critically wounded victims were transported in civilian cars and wagons to other hospitals in the region after the local government-run hospital was overwhelmed.

"Locals set up a militia and expelled the militants from this area," police chief Ayub Khan told reporters. "This attack seems to be reaction to their expulsion."

Mushtaq Marwat, an elder in Lakki Marwat, said members of the peace committee, many of whom were watching the match, had earlier received threats from militant groups operating in the volatile North Waziristan tribal region.

The blast was part of a retaliatory campaign the Taliban have waged against the army and the public since the government began an offensive on insurgent strongholds in South Waziristan in October, analysts said. The attack underscored the challenges ahead this year in the battle to stem insurgency along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

One objective of the militants' campaign is to sow terror among the general population in hopes of increasing political pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari's unpopular civilian government to back down.

"The Taliban are increasingly frustrated, as you saw with this sports attack," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations with Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "They spare no opportunity to engage in pure and simple terrorism against unarmed civilians. This has the largest psychological impact."

A second Taliban objective, analysts said, is to increase misunderstanding and distrust between Washington and Islamabad in hopes of preventing coordinated attacks from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border in the spring. At that point, the snows will have melted and many of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan promised by President Obama will be in place.

On other fronts, a suspected U.S. missile killed at least two alleged militants in a car in North Waziristan yesterday. It was the second such attack in less than 12 hours.

In 2009, the United States carried out at least 50 missile attacks involving unmanned "drone" aircraft against targets in Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Area and its adjacent Bannu district, killing dozens of people. These included al-Qaida and Taliban commanders.

U.S. officials rarely discuss the missile strikes, which the Pakistani public views as a threat to national sovereignty and a danger to civilians. Islamabad publicly condemns the aerial attacks, although it is widely believed to assist with intelligence and logistical support in secret.

With time, the drone attacks have become more effective and have involved fewer civilian casualties, although militants have started altering their movements in response.

Locals said two people were killed and four others wounded in yesterday's drone attack after two missiles hit a car parked outside a residential compound. The victims' identities could not be immediately established.

A drone attack late Thursday night reportedly hit the house of a local tribesman in Mirali Tehsil, a town in North Waziristan, killing seven people. Officials and family sources confirmed that pro-Taliban commander Haji Muhammad Umar, 48, was among the casualties

Umar, who signed a peace deal with the government in 2005, succeeded Nek Muhammad after the militant commander was killed in a missile attack in 2004. When the peace deal fell apart, Umar reportedly organized attacks against Pakistani security forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Analysts said the relative success of Pakistan army operation in the country's northern Swat Valley in early 2009 and in South Waziristan more recently has prompted militants to lash back against the Pakistan army and soft targets.

So far, however, the Pakistan public has been supportive of the government crackdown despite the growing civilian casualties, analysts said.

"The people of Pakistan are absolutely united on this as something you have to get rid of," said Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier general and military analyst.

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