MIRAN SHAH, Pakistan – Suspected militants attacked security forces in northwest Pakistan Wednesday, killing 16 soldiers and wounding up to 21 others in two separate strikes against military convoys, officials said.
The escalating violence follows the scrapping by militant leaders of a 10-month-old peace accord with the government in the Afghan frontier region of North Waziristan.
On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself before a rally in the capital supporting Pakistan’s chief justice against the president, killing 15 people.
The violence comes after the army stormed a mosque held by Islamic extremists. The bloodshed has heightened tensions, with religious radicals calling for more revenge attacks on the government and troops moving into militant strongholds on the border with Afghanistan — a move welcomed by Washington as helping in the fight against terrorists.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf condemned Tuesday’s blast as a “terrorist act,” and officials said they were trying to determine responsibility. A security official said the bomber’s severed head had been found.
Supporters of judge Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry accused the government of being behind the mayhem, while an opposition party thought to be considering joining a coalition government with Musharraf after year-end elections said the attack was aimed at its loyalists.
Chaudhry, whose fight against Musharraf’s effort to oust him has fueled opposition to the president extending his rule, was a few miles away when the attacker struck about 8:30 p.m. outside the Islamabad district court building.
The judge arrived a short time later and police ushered him into a tent set up for a rally by lawyers who have led frequent protests against his suspension. He spoke briefly with the lawyers, who said he offered prayers for the victims, but canceled his speech and left.
Kamal Shah, a top Interior Ministry official, said the explosion killed 15 people and wounded 44. Opposition party activists, police officers and bystanders were believed to be among the victims.
On Wednesday, assailants detonated a remote-control bomb and then opened fire on a convoy about 25 miles west of North Waziristan’s main town of Miran Shah, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.
Sixteen soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in the ambush, he said.
Earlier, an explosion hit another convey near Miran Shah, wounding one soldier and up to six civilians, Arshad said.
Also Wednesday, five rockets were fired at Miran Shah and an explosion ripped through the main entrance to the home of a pro-government tribal elder. No casualties were reported in either incident.
Militants have stepped up attacks in North Waziristan since the agreement was terminated the past weekend. A suicide bomber on Tuesday struck a security check post in the same area, killing three soldiers.
The latest bloodshed has clouded government efforts to resurrect the disputed peace pact in the area along the Afghan border known as a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida militants as well as local extremists.
Musharraf insists that the pact — under which the military scaled back its operations in the U.S.-led war on terror in return for pledges from tribal leaders to contain militancy — offers the best long-term hope of pacifying the region.
However, U.S. officials have expressed concern that it gives Islamic extremists breathing space that they have used to strengthen their operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.
In an intelligence report unveiled in Washington on Tuesday, analysts said the peace pact had given al-Qaida new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.
Al-Qaida was using its burgeoning strength in Pakistan, as well as Iraq, to plot terror strikes on American soil, according to the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.
Pro-Taliban leaders disowned the pact amid a spate of violence following a bloody conflict between security forces and militants at Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque.
Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said there was a “possibility” that the northwest attacks were reactions to the Red Mosque raid.
A total of 124 people have died in suicide attacks and bombings across the northwest since the conflict at the Red Mosque began on July 3, including 91 soldiers and police.
The mosque siege, in which more than 100 people were killed, triggered calls for revenge attacks from extremist leaders including al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.
However, the North Waziristan deal had already been fraying for some months.
Militant leaders accuse the government of violating the agreement by allowing a series of mysterious nighttime airstrikes on suspected militant hide-outs near the frontier. It remains unclear whether the strikes were carried out by Pakistani forces or U.S. operatives based in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, acknowledges that elders have failed to live up to pledges to expel foreign militants and prevent cross-border raids. There have been other deadly attacks on army convoys on the same road where Tuesday’s attack occurred.
A government-backed mediator who met with tribal elders said he was hopeful the government and a tribal jirga, or council, could still salvage the pact.
Militants have demanded the withdrawal of troops recently redeployed to checkpoints and more compensation for residents who lost property in earlier military raids.
The surging violence has added to the crisis in Pakistan, where Musharraf also faces threats to his life and calls for him to end eight years of military rule.