Taliban say bombs ‘a gift’ to US envoy

Associated Press / August 18, 2009

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Taliban claimed responsibility for two weekend suicide bombings in the northwestern Swat Valley, saying yesterday the blasts were a message to a visiting US envoy that the militants remained strong despite recent Pakistani army gains there.

The attacks - coupled with another bombing that killed seven elsewhere in the northwest yesterday - showed that the Muslim extremists can still sow violence and fear despite losing Swat to the military and reportedly their top leader to a US missile strike elsewhere near the Afghan border on Aug. 5.

Celebrations by residents returning to Swat for Pakistan’s independence day last week were followed by two blasts Saturday and Sunday, the first since the army declared in late July it had regained control of the valley. The first bombing on a security checkpoint killed five people. Two soldiers died in another attack after a cornered militant detonated his explosives.

A Swat Taliban spokesman called the Associated Press from an unidentified location yesterday to say the militants timed the attacks to coincide with the visit of US envoy Richard Holbrooke, who has been tasked with pressing Islamabad to crackdown on extremists threatening Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The bombings were “a gift to Holbrooke,’’ Muslim Khan said. “The Taliban cannot be eliminated.’’

Holbrooke, who arrived Friday night, had been scheduled to travel to Mingora, Swat’s main city, on Sunday but canceled, citing bad weather.

The envoy met yesterday with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and praised the army’s success in Swat and nearby regions, according to a statement from Gilani’s office.

The offensive began in April after the Taliban advanced to within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.

It was Pakistan’s largest anti-militant operation after years of intermittent peace deals with various factions in areas of the northwest.