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Police in northwestern Pakistan say that a suicide bomber has killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens of others. Taliban militants have stepped up attacks in the country in recent weeks in retaliation for a military offensive in South Waziristan.
The deadly suicide blast occurred near a crowded market on the outskirts of northwestern city of Peshawar and was aimed at a local anti-Taliban mayor who died in the attack.
The slain tribal leader was once a Taliban supporter, but he switched loyalty to the government recently and mobilized villagers to form a tribal militia against militants in his area. Since turning against the militants more than a year ago, Abdul Malik had survived several attempts on his life. He had stopped near the cattle market, says an eyewitness, to meet his friends when the bomber struck.
The eyewitness says that a young man in his early 20s walked up to the mayor and blew himself up as soon as a security guard tried to check his identity. He says the powerful explosion immediately killed most of the people, including the anti-Taliban mayor.
Taliban militants have repeatedly struck in different parts of Pakistan, killing scores of civilians and security forces. Authorities believe the violence is retaliation for the ongoing military offensive in South Waziristan, where extremists linked to al-Qaida and Taliban have set up bases. Late last month, a powerful car bombing in Peshawar left more than 100 people dead, all of them civilians.
The army launched the anti-militancy assault on October 17 and it claims to have killed more than 480 militants, including 20 killed in latest fighting on Sunday. At least 44 soldiers also have died in these clashes. But independent verification of the battlefield losses is not possible because reporters have no access to South Waziristan where fighting is taking place.
Last week, U.N officials urged both security forces and militants to ensure safety of civilians trapped in the war zone, saying nearly 200,000 people have fled South Waziristan.
Martin Mogwanja is the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan.
"The civilians have no place in this conflict," Mogwanja said. "Their safety and their safe exit from the areas of conflict must be assured and it is the responsibility of those involved in the conflict to make sure that this happens. We also want to underline that any impact of the conflict on the civilians must be avoided at all cost. "'
Aid workers say those escaping the fighting have taken refuge in northwestern towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank where they are staying with relatives, or in rented houses. Pakistani military officials say they have captured key militant bases, but it is not clear when the anti-Taliban operation will end, allowing the displaced families to return to their homes.