Rawalpindi: A suspected Taliban suicide bomb killed at least 24 people in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi on Monday, officials said, as the government announced a reward for the capture, dead or alive, of the group’s leader.
Pakistan Taliban militants are being squeezed out of their remote strongholds on the Afghan border by a massive army offensive, and have retaliated by stepping up bomb attacks and commando-style raids on urban targets.
The army offensive is being closely watched by the US and other powers embroiled in neighbouring Afghanistan, as the border area has become a sanctuary for insurgent groups from both countries as well as foreign Al-Qaeda militants.
“It was a suicide attack. So far, 24 people have been killed,” Imdadullah Bosal, Rawalpindi’s administration chief, told Reuters.
The blast came as the Pakistan government announced rewards of up to $5 million for information leading to the capture, dead or alive, of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and more than a dozen other leaders.
With the army involved in the offensive against Hakimullah and his followers in their South Waziristan strongholds, the militants have retaliated by stepping up a bombing campaign against urban targets across the country.
The attack in Rawalpindi, a large sprawling city that twins the smaller, administrative capital, Islamabad, took place in an area that is home to the army headquarters as well as some hotels.
“It was a huge blast. Smoke is rising from the scene,” Nasir Naqvi, who runs a travel agency near the site of the blast, told Reuters.
Officials said many of the victims were elderly people who had gathered at a bank to withdraw their pensions. TV stations showed ambulances and police vehicles racing through the streets, sirens wailing.
The announcement of the bounty on Hakimullah’s head was made through newspaper advertisements as security forces zeroed in on his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) strongholds in South Waziristan.
“These people are definitely killers of humanity and deserve exemplary punishment,” read the front-page advertisement, with photographs of Hakimullah and seven senior lieutenants in The News.
“Help the government of Pakistan so that these people meet their nemesis.”
A reward of over $600,000 each was announced for Hakimullah, his top aide Wali-ur-Rehman, and his cousin, Qari Hussain Mehsud, who is known as “the mentor of suicide bombers”.
The trio spoke last month to a group of journalists in Sararogha, a major Taliban base in South Waziristan, but have not been sighted since.
Security forces have captured Kotkai, the birthplace of Hakimullah and hometown of Hussain, in the Waziristan offensive, and on Sunday the military said it was on the outskirts of Sararogha and Makeen, also strongholds of Hakimullah.
In the deadliest militant attack in more than two years, more than 100 people were killed and scores more wounded on Wednesday when a car bomb detonated in a crowded market in the northwest frontier city of Peshawar.
In a related development, the United Nations on Tuesday announced it had raised a security alert for the Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas - which include Waziristan - ordering all non-essential international staff to leave.