KHAR, Pakistan – A homicide bomber killed 16 people Saturday at a police checkpoint in a northwest Pakistani tribal area where the military declared victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda last year, highlighting the difficulty Islamabad has in holding regions once the battle phase of its army offensives end.
Elsewhere in the lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, suspected U.S. missiles killed nine alleged militants, officials said.
Fourteen civilians and two police officers died in the homicide attack in the Bajur tribal region, while 20 people were wounded, local government official Bakhat Pacha said. The attacker, on foot, struck a market area in the region's main town, Khar, he said.
Some of the wounded were in a critical condition at hospitals, he said.
The attack came a day after officials said security forces had killed 44 militants in three days of battles on the outskirts of Khar.
Pakistan waged a major military offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Bajur in 2008, declaring victory over the militants by February 2009. But in recent weeks, clashes and now this latest homicide attack have signaled a deteriorating security situation in the area.
The violence comes as Pakistan's army has focused on an offensive in South Waziristan tribal region, the primary stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban. That military operation is believed to have led many militants to flee to other parts of the tribal belt.
The U.S. has praised the Pakistani operations, but also wants Islamabad to pursue militants in North Waziristan, where many of the insurgent groups are focused on battling Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Washington has waged its own fight in Pakistan's tribal territories through its covert CIA-led missile program.
Overnight Saturday, three suspected U.S. missiles hit a compound and a bunker in the Mohammad Khel area of North Waziristan, part of a surge of the drone-fired strikes, intelligence officials said. The mountainous area is where a suspected U.S. drone is reported to have crashed on Jan. 24, they added.
Two missiles in Saturday's attack hit the compound being used by the militants, killing seven of them, the intelligence officials said. The third killed two more insurgents in the bunker, they said.
Another such missile strike early this month targeted a meeting of militant commanders in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to kill Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
The Pakistani Taliban are believed to have played a role in the Dec. 30 homicide bombing of a remote CIA base in Afghanistan's eastern Khost province that killed seven of the agency's employees. Analysts suspect the Haqqani network, an Al Qaeda-linked Afghan Taliban faction based in North Waziristan, also helped carry out the CIA attack.
Since the CIA was hit, the U.S. has carried out 13 suspected drone strikes in North and South Waziristan, an unprecedented volley of attacks since the missile program began in earnest in Pakistan two years ago.
The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.
The U.S. does not usually comment on the strikes or their targets, but officials have said in the past that they have taken out several senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The Pakistani government publicly condemns the strikes as violations of its sovereignty, yet it is thought to have a secret deal with Washington allowing them.