PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – An explosion destroyed the home of a militant in Pakistan’s Khyber region on Monday, killing seven people, on the third day of a government offensive against Islamists threatening the city of Peshawar.
A militant chief said he believed the blast was caused by a missile but a government official in the region said explosives stored at the house in the town of Bara went off accidentally.
“There was no rocket attack, it’s not related to the ongoing operation. The blast was caused by explosives that were lying there,” said the senior political official, who declined to be identified.
Security forces launched an offensive in Khyber, on the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan, on Saturday to push back Taliban militants who have been moving towards Peshawar, raising fears for the city’s security.
Troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters met virtually no resistance when they moved in and secured Bara, about 15 km (10 miles) southwest of Peshawar.
Troops destroyed several militant compounds as well as an FM radio station and an interrogation centre, officials said.
The offensive is the first major military action a new government has launched since it took power after February elections, and comes after growing alarm about the spread of militants in the northwest.
It also came as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Richard Boucher, arrived in Pakistan for talks with government leaders.
The commander of the main militant group in the area, Mangal Bagh, left Bara for the remote Tirah valley before the offensive.
He told media he had ordered his men to go home and not put up a fight, adding he did not know why security forces were attacking his group which did not harbor foreign militants or have links with the Taliban or al Qaeda.
Bagh is not allied with notorious Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and his men are not known for crossing into Afghanistan to attack Western troops.
But on June 21, his men briefly kidnapped 16 Christians in Peshawar, compounding fears in the city where militants have increasingly being threatening music and video shops and ordering barbers, in line with hardline Taliban edicts.
Peshawar residents had begun to fear that the city could fall into the clutches of the Taliban, even though the main army garrison for the northwest is in the city of 3 million.
In response to the offensive in Khyber, Mehsud said he was suspending negotiations with the government and he threatened to retaliate.
The government led by Bhutto’s party has been trying to end violence through talks, although the United States has raised concern that peace pacts enable militants to step up attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
Numerous small armed factions have sprung up across Pakistan’s tribal lands, vowing to fight for Islam. Some criminal gangs also claim to be Taliban, analysts say.
Many of the groups have joined a Pakistani Taliban umbrella organization led by Mehsud, who is based in South Waziristan.
The militant whose house was blown up in Bara belonged to a faction led by a leader called Haji Namdar who is linked with Mehsud, and Mehsud’s spokesman vowed revenge for the blast.
Police in the northwestern city of Bannu said two suspected suicide bombers were arrested late on Sunday traveling from South Waziristan. They were found with arms, explosives and two suicide-bomb vests, police said.