updated 9/27/2009 11:40:46 AM ET 2009-09-27T15:40:46

The suicide blasts that rocked northwest Pakistan over the weekend signal the Taliban remain a threat despite intensified military operations and unmanned drone attacks targeting the group's leaders, analysts said Sunday.

Twenty-two people were killed and more than 150 wounded Saturday in two attacks hours apart in North West Frontier Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the strikes.

Pakistan is battling al-Qaida and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border blamed for scores of attacks over the last two years. The insurgents are linked to those in Afghanistan, where violence against NATO and U.S. troops is running at record levels.

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA missile strike in the northwest last month. While the militants have named a new leader, some have speculated the group may have lost some of its ability to stage attacks.

Threat from Islamist extremists
A retired former intelligence chief of the region, Asad Munir, said Saturday's attacks were a reminder of the threat from Islamist extremists.

"That area is the safe haven for the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership and they don't want to lose it," Munir told The Associated Press. "Yesterday's attacks were a show of strength and indicated the potential threat from militants in those areas."

Two explosives-packed vehicles driven by suicide attackers leveled a police station in the rural district of Bannu, killing 11, and tore through a commercial area in the main city of Peshawar, killing 11. More than 150 people were wounded, officials said.

The killing of Mehsud followed a largely successful army offensive in the Swat Valley region against the Taliban, which to some extent had reassured Western governments of Pakistan's ability and intent to fight the insurgency.

"In spite of the reverses they have suffered in Swat, and the death and arrest of some of their ringleaders, the Taliban have demonstrated tenacity and proved they are capable of sowing terror whenever and wherever they wish," the Dawn daily newspaper said in a Sunday editorial. "Their command structure is still intact and their sources of funding and arms remain virtually unscathed."

A senior Peshawar police officer said Saturday's bombings were in response to government pressure. "The security forces' offensive against militants is on, and in desperation they are now targeting innocent citizens," said Liaquat Ali Khan.

Civilians urged to stay away
The Taliban called The Associated Press after the first bombing outside the police station to claim responsibility and warn of more attacks. Taliban spokesman Qari Hussain Mehsud said the militants had been holding back but the "pause" was now over. He urged civilians to stay away from police and security force installations.

Munir said with the recent killing of the Taliban chief, it is an opportune moment for the military to launch a major offensive in the northwest to eliminate the militants.

"This is the right time for a comprehensive and detailed operation in Waziristan and adjoining areas as they are still in disarray after the death of Baitullah Mehsud. I think the army is determined to do it in October," he said.

Targets in the North and South Waziristan tribal regions have been hit by Pakistani airstrikes, but the military has yet to launch a major ground offensive there. The government has said it will begin army operations in the region at the "appropriate" time.

Some 500 tribesmen gathered Sunday in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan to discuss how to bring peace to the area. Tribal elders urged the government to ensure safe passage for those who flee if it launches an offensive in Waziristan, and financial assistance for people who already left because of airstrikes, local official Maulana Hassamuddin said.

Also Sunday, the military announced a 5 million rupee ($60,000) bounty had been placed on the head of Mangal Bagh, a top militant leader in the Khyber region near the Afghan border. Bounties of 2 million rupees ($24,000) were offered for four other commanders in the area.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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