A suicide bomber blew himself up at an army mess hall in northwestern Pakistan on Thursday, killing at least 15 soldiers, officials said.
Militants, meanwhile, attacked a base and triggered a battle that left about 50 insurgents and two soldiers dead near the Afghan border where pro-Taliban fighters hold sway, the army said.
The violence came as visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte met with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad.
The attack at the mess hall in Ghazi Tarbela, an army facility about 60 miles south of the capital of Islamabad, was the work of a suicide bomber, according to two security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their job.
Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, the spokesman for Pakistan’s army, confirmed to Pakistan’s private Geo news channels that 15 soldiers were killed and 11 wounded, some seriously, but he would not say what caused the blast.
The two intelligence officials also said the victims belonged to the army’s Karar commando group, which has participated in operations against militants.
Arshad said the army forces in South Waziristan repelled repeated militant attacks in Razmak. Army helicopters and ground fire destroyed four rebel positions, he said.
Arshad said their initial estimate was that at least 30 militants were killed, but added later that tribesmen informed officials that as many as 50 insurgents had died in the military attack. He said two soldiers had died and eight were wounded.
A militant rocket hit a transformer and power line, cutting electricity in Razmak, he said.
Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has deployed about 90,000 troops in the country’s tribal regions near Afghanistan to flush out remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida. It is under growing U.S. pressure to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaida in its border regions.
Arshad denied reports from three intelligence officials who said 10 soldiers had been killed in the Razmak fighting. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
One of the officials told The Associated Press that another four to six soldiers were missing after the attack on the Nawaz Fort base.
Fighting between Islamic militants and security forces has been raging across northwest Pakistan since the army moved against militant extremists inside a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad, in July. Most of the combat has taken place in the rugged mountains along the Afghan frontier.
Pakistan also has witnessed several suicide attacks in otherwise peaceful areas, including two blasts on Sept. 4 that killed 25 people and wounded more than 60 in Rawalpindi, where the army has its headquarters.
Pakistan tries to curtail militancy
U.S. officials have welcomed signs that Musharraf, who is seeking a new five-year term, is taking a tougher line.
“There is no doubt whatsoever of Pakistan’s commitment to restoring and establishing security in that part of the country and more than doing its share in the war against terror,” Negroponte said Wednesday.
A statement from Musharraf’s office after Negroponte met the president said the U.S. had committed $750 million for the development of Pakistan’s tribal regions over five years.
The army says it has deployed 90,000 troops in the border region to try to curtail militancy and stop guerrillas from crossing into Afghanistan to attack NATO forces.
But the military had scaled back its operations under disputed peace deals signed last year, and there is growing alarm that extremists have used the breathing space to exert control over ever-greater areas of North West Frontier Province.
Militants are currently holding hostage some 260 soldiers seized in South Waziristan on Aug. 30 and are waging a morality campaign reminiscent of the former ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Extremists are pressuring shopkeepers in the region not to sell music or movies and barbers not to trim beards or face punishment for encouraging behavior they consider un-Islamic.
In the latest incident, a bomb planted in a market near the city of Kohat destroyed six stores selling music CDs, two tailor shops and one barber shop before dawn on Thursday, local police officer Anwar Khan said. No one was reported hurt.