By Riaz Khan Associated Press
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Islamist militants attacked a U.S. consulate in northwest Pakistan with car bombs and grenades today, killing three people, hours after 41 people died in a suicide attack on a political rally elsewhere in the region.
The assaults illustrated the resilience of militants in the country despite intense army operations and U.S. missile strikes in their northwestern havens near Afghanistan.
After the car bombs exploded at a checkpoint outside the consulate in Peshawar, militants dressed in security uniforms fired mortars or rocket-propelled grenades at the heavily fortified compound in an attempt to make their way inside, said a Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“I think they could not manage to get inside,” provincial Senior Minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour told reporters outside the consulate.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said the militants attempted to enter the building and fired grenades and other weapons. It said no Americans were killed in the assault, but did not say whether the building itself was damaged.
Al-Qaida and Taliban militants have long vowed to attack the United States, which has fired scores of missiles at them in their northwestern strongholds over the last 11/2 years. Washington also has given billions of dollars in aid to the Pakistani army, which is also attacking the Muslim extremists.
The last attack against a U.S. mission was in Karachi in 2006.
The three people killed in today’s attack included a paramilitary soldier, a private security guard and a civilian, said police official Sattar Khan. Four militants were also killed during the attack and three other people were wounded, he said.
“They were well equipped,” Bilour said. “They had a lot of explosives.”
Police discovered suicide jackets after the militants were killed and defused them, Bilour said.
Two of the blasts took place around 20 yards from the main entrance to the consulate, an Associated Press reporter close to the scene said.
Local TV footage from Peshawar showed soldiers taking up defensive positions on the road outside the consulate. One soldier hit the ground in the middle of the road and began firing as a large explosion sent up a plume of gray smoke nearby.
Rescue workers carried at least one wounded man away on a stretcher, his clothing soaked with blood.
The U.S. is only one of three countries to have a diplomatic presence in Peshawar, which has seen repeated militant attacks over the last 18 months. As well as attacking militants and hunting al-Qaida in the northwest, Washington is also funding many development projects in the region aimed at cutting support for the insurgents.
It is unclear how many diplomats work at the building.
Shortly before the attack, a suicide bomber struck a rally held by a Pashtun nationalist party in Lower Dir to celebrate the government-supported proposal to change the name of North West Frontier Province to Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, said local police chief Mumtaz Zarin Khan.
“A police official spotted the bomber a second before he exploded,” Khan said. “The official shot at him, but by that time, he had done his job.”
A total of 41 people at the rally in the town of Timergarah were killed and 80 wounded, he said.
Local TV footage showed people in tears running and carrying wounded in desperate search for help from rescue workers.
“Such acts only reflect the barbarian approach of the militants,” said an Awami National Party lawmaker from the district, Malik Azmat. “They are not humans.”
Lower Dir lies next to the Swat Valley, which was the target of a major military offensive last year that succeeded in driving out the militants. Other major operations in the Afghan border region followed, and have gone some way in reassuring the world that Pakistan is not falling to the extremists.
The frequency of militant attacks in Pakistan over the last three months has dropped compared to the final quarter of last year, but experts have cautioned it is far too early to say this means the insurgents are in retreat.