July 1, 2008 / 1:18 AM / 9 years ago

Blast in Pakistan's Khyber; U.S. official arrives

<p>Pakistani tribesmen walk among the debris of a house after an explosion near Bara in the Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border June 30, 2008. T REUTERS/Ali Imam</p>

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - An explosion destroyed the home of a militant in Pakistan’s Khyber region on Monday, killing seven people residents said, on the third day of an 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.

Boucher met Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who said his government would talk to militants who laid down arms but would “never negotiate with militants nor allow foreigners to use our soil against another country,” Gilani’s office said.

Gilani is due to go to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush next month.

Underscoring U.S. concern about Pakistan, the New York Times said on Monday U.S. officials drafted a secret plan last year to make it easier for U.S. special forces to operate in Pakistan’s tribal lands. The plan was later put on hold, it said.

SUSPECTED BOMBERS SEIZED

The offensive in the northwest had no direct impact on Pakistani stocks, where trade has been dull for days because of political and economic uncertainty.

But dealers said investors were unnerved by a loud blast heard in the capital, Islamabad, and nearby city of Rawalpindi, which the air force later said had been caused by a sonic boom.

The commander of the main militant group in Kyber, 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 to stop shaving men’s beards, 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 threatened to retaliate.

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.

Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony, Ibrahim Shinwari, Kamran Haider and Sahar Ahmed;; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson

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