ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, August 12, 2008 -- A bomb ripped through a Pakistani air force van this morning outside the Northwest city of Peshawar, killing seven air force members and at least six civilians in an attack that Pakistani Taliban threatened would be repeated unless a campaign against them was abandoned.
For the last six days, Pakistani paramilitary officers have launched mortars, artillery and helicopter gunship attacks on militants in Bajur, a region where the local Taliban has a close relationship with al Qaeda. At least 150 militants and 13 soldiers have been killed since last Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the military.
A senior al Qaeda leader is believed to be among the dead, a local security official tells ABC News. Abu Saeed al-Masri has been described as al Qaeda's accountant. Military spokesman say they cannot confirm whether al-Masri was in fact killed, and the U.S. so far has not commented. Al-Masri would be the highest ranking al Qaeda fighter killed in Pakistan since an American drone killed Abu Khabab al-Masri, one of al Qaeda's chief bombmakers, near the Afghan border earlier this month.
The Pakistani Taliban spokesman said the attack on the air force van was a direct response to the government's offensive. "It is an open war between us and them," Maulvi Umar told The Associated Press. "If this kind of operations continue against us in Swat and in the tribal areas, we will continue this."
The bomb, which witnesses say was planted on a bridge but the Taliban claims was a suicide attack, destroyed the air force van as well as civilian vehicles. The dead included a 5-year-old girl.
Video of the aftermath shows a 10-foot-wide crater in the bridge and the smoldering wreckage of the Mazda van a few feet away.
"Suddenly a flash blast took place," eyewitness Allah Noor told reporters on the bridge. "I also fell on the ground. I've just come back after changing my clothes which are covered in blood."
The fighting in Bajur is a major operation for the Pakistani Frontier Corps, the underfunded front-line troops fighting the militancy in the northwest. They have suffered heavily in the current operation and were forced to abandon a base over the weekend. But the military insists it will continue the campaign "until the logical conclusion, when all the militants in the area have been defeated," Major General Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, told ABC News.
Today's bombing is similar to the dozens of attacks launched by the Taliban last year on the country's police, military, and politicians. Those attacks largely stopped when the government signed several peace deals with the Taliban early this year. The U.S. argues those peace deals allowed militants to launch more attacks at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, the debate over confronting the Taliban with military might or engaging them political and economically has been at the center of the country's relationship with the U.S. for the last few years and is at the center of the country's current political crisis.
Around the same time the bomb went off, Northwest Frontier Province legislators overwhelmingly approved a no-confidence resolution against President Pervez Musharraf, an attempt to pressure him into resigning. The current government is threatening to impeach the president unless he does not voluntarily leave.
Musharraf has become extremely unpopular in part because many Pakistanis blame his policy of confronting militants – a policy they see as dictated by the United States – for the spate of violence in the last year and a half.
"The flawed internal and external policies of his dictatorial regime have resulted in the large scale murder of innocent people of our province," the northwest frontier resolution stated.
The current government in the northwest, led by the Awami National Party, won elections in February in part by promising to make peace with the militants.
Afrasiab Khattak, provincial head of the Awami National Party, acknowledged today that the military campaigns need to continue, but they need to be part of a more comprehensive strategy than Musharraf undertook.
"If you don't call back the army now to fight the militants, if we give away more and more districts, the existence of a civil-political government will become a question mark," he told ABC News from Peshawar. "But the most important thing is on the part of the state leadership, which must muster the political will to take on religious militancy... The objective should be rescuing people who live as hostages under the militants -- and then empower them."
The Bajur operation began when militants stormed a Frontier Corps outpost last Wednesday. Caught between the militants and government's bombing campaign, thousands of residents have been forced to flee.
Nabi Gul, who lives outside of Khar, Bajur's capital, used a Pashto saying when describing the state of residents in Bajur.
"An orphan," he said, "is used to crying."