A suicide bomber pretending to need help with his car killed 34 people in northwest Pakistan on Sunday while the target of another recent attack, the Marriott in Islamabad, partially reopened three months after a brazen truck bombing at the luxury hotel left 54 dead.
The Marriott building was badly damaged by the September blast _ blamed on a Pakistani militant group accused of killing US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 _ but renovations, a security overhaul and the addition of a giant bombproof wall meant the hotel was ready to welcome guests again, the owner said. "We have expressed our resolve that we will not bow before the enemies of Pakistan," said owner Saddaruddin Hashwani. The suicide attack on Sunday, at a polling station close to the Swat Valley, comes amid concern that extremist violence is set to spike now that Pakistan is shifting troops away from the region toward India.
The military has not confirmed the troop movements, but it has restricted military leave and reports said thousands were being redeployed away from the northwest _ where many al-Qaida and Taliban militants are based _ toward the eastern border with India amid tensions over last month's attacks in Mumbai.
India blames Pakistani militants for the slaughter of 164 people in its commercial capital, and it has not ruled out force. But leaders of both nuclear-armed countries insist they want to avoid what would be their fourth war.
Leading Pakistani newspapers warned in editorials Sunday that Pakistan can't afford to reduce its troop presence along the Afghan border.
"Isn't that the area where the world's best intelligence says the extremist militants are holed up in significant numbers and planning to strike targets everywhere?" wrote Dawn, a leading English-language paper. "They cannot be allowed a breather at a time when military operations are ongoing to clear the area of their roguish presence."
Witnesses have reported large convoys moving troops away from the Afghan border in recent days. Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Friday that thousands of troops from the army's 14th Infantry Division were being redeployed from the militant hotspot of Waziristan to towns close to the Indian border. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. The targeted polling station was located in a school in Buner, a district bordering the Swat Valley, where the Pakistani army has waged an intermittent offensive against militants for more than a year. The explosion wounded 14 people, five of them critically, said police official Beharmand Khan.
"The suicide attacker pulled his car outside the polling station and asked people to push the vehicle, saying that it had broken down," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the region containing the Swat Valley. "The moment people started pushing the car, he blew it up."
Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar condemned the attack, saying "cowardice and inhuman acts could not weaken the government's resolve to eliminate the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism."
In Islamabad, the Marriott's restaurants reopened and 70 rooms were to be available Jan. 1, said Sufia Shahid, a senior communications official for the group that owns the hotel. The rest of the hotel's nearly 300 rooms are expected to be ready by March, she added.
The attack prompted foreign embassies, non-governmental organizations and other groups to tighten security and even send some people home.
Pakistan has arrested three people allegedly connected to the truck bombing, but no one has been formally charged. The Pakistani government recently claimed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group believed to be based in the Pakistani province of Punjab, was involved in the bombing. The Sunni Muslim extremist group has been accused of attacks against Westerners in Karachi and the 2002 slaying of Pearl.