9 die in suicide attack as Pakistan loses second border fort

( dpa ) - At least nine people were killed Thursday when a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite congregation in Pakistan's North- West Frontier Province as militants forced troops to abandon the second border fort in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

The suicide attacker shot twice and then blew himself up when the police - deployed outside a Shiite mosque in Kohati Bazaar district of Peshawar, provincial capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province - stopped him for a search. The bomber was aged 18 to 20.

"We have so far confirmed reports of nine people killed of which four have been identified. One among the killed is a policeman Alamdar Hussain," city police chief Tanvir ul Haq said.

It was feared the death toll would increase as several of the wounded were in critical condition.

"The hall of the emergency ward is full of the injured people. There must be more than 20 wounded persons," medical officer Amjad Hussain said at the Lady Reading Hospital. Among the wounded were three children and two policemen.

The attack came when the Shiite Muslims were mourning the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussain ibn Ali in 680 AD, an incident which caused a split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Pakistan has a history of violent sectarian clashes between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims who comprise 20 per cent of the population.

Last year, on exactly the same day according to Muslim calendar, on Moharrum 7, a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite congregation at the same mosque, killing 15 people including the city's police chief.

However, the worst sectarian violence was seen in the tribal district of Kurram agency where more than 500 people died in the fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite tribesmen last6e 2007 and early 2008.

Meanwhile, the security forces vacated the Sepalati Fort in the Jandola area of tribal district South Waziristan after the insurgents threatened to attack it, a local security official said.

"All 38 paramilitary soldiers deployed there have returned to the main base with their arms and vehicles," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The development came a day after more than 200 tribal fighters seized the nearby Sararogha fort after an attack with rockets and small arms.

After looting weapons and ammunition and demolishing parts of the colonial era fort, the militants abandoned it on Wednesday night but government forces had not yet been able to regain its control.

"The militants have retreated but they are hiding in the nearby mountains and that is why the government forces are not daring to enter the fort," an official said.

The Army said 40 rebels and seven paramilitary soldiers from the Frontier Corps had died in the attack while 15 were still missing.

However, there were conflicting reports and claims about the casualties and numbers of attackers.

A spokesman for pro-Taliban commander Beitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility for the raid and said Mehsud's fighters had killed 16 troops and captured 24. "We lost only two of our men in the fighting," Maulvi Omar said.

The Dawn newspaper, citing security sources, said at least 22 soldiers had died and seven more had been taken hostage by 600 to 700 attackers.

"Soldiers put up a good fight but couldn't hold out for long in the face of an overwhelming militant force," a local security official told the newspaper.

Analysts said the attack was a major setback for the more than 120,000 security forces deployed in the restive border region, where, according to US military intelligence, the al-Qaeda terrorist network is also active.

"This is a reflection of the growing power of the militants in the region and the retreat of the state," said defence analyst and retired army general Talat Masoud. "They are totally overpowering the security forces and the local tribesmen are supporting them."

This success of the militants means that the paramilitary forces deployed in the tribal region are not well equipped and the militants are more powerful, better equipped and have a higher level of motivation, he added.

President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally in the war against terror, has accused Mehsud of ordering several recent suicide bombings targeting security officials and politicians.

They include the gun and bomb attack on former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who was slain at a political rally in Rawalpindi December 27. Only in 2007, more than 700 people were killed in over 50 suicide attacks across Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the suspected Islamic militants fired four rockets at Pakistan's army base in the Kamra district of eastern Punjab province but caused no casualties.

According to district police chief Tariq Hanief Joia, the rockets fired from six to eight kilometres distance partly damaged the building, a canteen on the army base.

Kamra is located at around one hour's drive from the capital Islamabad and is situated close to North-West Frontier Province, where pro-Taliban militants are expanding their influence.

Last month nine people were injured in an abortive attack by a suicide car bomber in the same city.

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