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Pakistan Attacks Kill 38, Strike at US Consulate

by Lehaz Ali

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Suspected Islamist militants waged a series of attacks in northwest Pakistan on Monday, striking at the US consulate in Peshawar and killing 38 people at a political rally in a nearby town.

Three powerful explosions and gunfire erupted near the US consulate and sensitive military installations in Peshawar. (AFP) Three powerful explosions and gunfire erupted near the US consulate and sensitive military installations in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern Pakistan, witnesses and a security official said.

The attacks occurred at a checkpoint about 20 metres (yards) from the US consulate on the road leading to the diplomatic mission, an AFP correspondent said.

"We can confirm there has been an attack at the US consulate Peshawar facilities," US embassy spokeswoman Ariel Howard told AFP, unable to provide any details about the nature of the attack, possible damage or casualties.

Pakistani police and army sealed off the entire area, preventing journalists from accessing the scene. At least two ambulances were seen driving away, but a hospital official in Peshawar said initially that only one person was wounded.

Television broadcast bouts of heavy gunfire, and clouds of smoke rising over the garrison part of the city, close to the consulate and the Peshawar headquarters of Pakistan's top spy agency, which was bombed last November.

Peshawar lies on the edge of Pakistan's tribal belt -- branded by Washington a global headquarters of Al-Qaeda -- and has been subject to numerous attacks by Islamist militants, although recent months have seen a relative lull.

A Pakistani intelligence official said he suspected that Islamist militants were holed up in the area, but said it was immpossible to verify this because of the gunfire in the area.

More than 3,150 people have been killed in suicide and bomb attacks over the last three years in Pakistan, blamed on militants opposed to the US alliance in the war on Al-Qaeda and against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Shortly before the Peshawar explosions, a suicide bomber attacked an open-air rally in the northwest district of Lower Dir, where Pakistan waged a major offensive against local Taliban insurgents last year.

The attack occurred during a celebration organised by the leading secular political party in northwest and was the deadliest in Lower Dir since the anti-Taliban offensive.

"We have received 38 dead bodies," Doctor Wakeel Ahmed, head of the main hospital in Timargarah told AFP. "There are more than 100 injured. Most of them are in a serious condition. I'm still sending out my ambulances."

Timargarah police chief Mumtaz Zareen told AFP that it was a suicide attack, adding: "The man came on foot and detonated himself."

Residents reportedly said the bomb exploded close to the stage at the political gathering.

The Awami National Party (ANP) said it organised the meeting to celebrate plans to rename North West Frontier Province -- Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as laid out in a package of constitutional reform being debated in the federal parliament.

The new name honours the Pashtun-majority population in the province, replaces a name that dates back to British colonial rule and is part of efforts to devolve greater authority to the provinces.

"Our party had arranged a thanksgiving day to celebrate the changing of the name after 200 years of colonial legacy," ANP spokesman Zahid Khan told Pakistan's private Geo television.

Lower Dir borders Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, where suspected Taliban armed with petrol bombs and rockets torched eight tankers used to supply fuel to NATO forces in Afghanistan before dawn on Monday, officials said.

Dozens of fighters launched the attack at Zakha Khel in the tribal district of Khyber, local administration chief Shafeerullah Wazir told AFP.

The tankers had recently returned from supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan, where around 126,000 foreign troops are trying to help the Western-backed government put down a nearly nine-year Taliban insurgency.

Another official, Rehan Gul Khattak, blamed the attack on Taliban. Islamist gunmen frequently attack vehicles travelling through Khyber on the main NATO land supply route through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Under US pressure, Pakistan has in the past year significantly increased operations against militants in its tribal belt, following the 2009 offensive in Lower Dir and neighbouring districts Swat and Buner.

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