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Pakistan kills 66 Taliban as hotel blast probed

Scores of Taliban killed as fighting flares in new zones

Pakistan's army said Thursday it had killed 66 Taliban members as fighting spilled into a tribal area known to be a hub for the militant group blamed for a deadly bombing at a luxury Peshawar hotel.

Already in the final stages of an operation to clear Islamist fighters from the Swat valley, far to the northwest and closer to Islamabad, the military went on the offensive on Tuesday in Bannu district after up to 800 militants infiltrated from Waziristan.

U.S. officials, worried that the Taliban could drive nuclear-armed Pakistan into chaos, have welcomed the Swat offensive and there has been talk that Waziristan, a hub of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity, would be the army's next target.

Investigators, meanwhile, sifted through the rubble of the Pearl Continental hotel for DNA and other clues to try to piece together exactly who was behind the blast that killed nine people and wounded 62 on Tuesday.

Unrest

At least nine people were killed when three attackers shot their way through a security checkpost and rammed an explosives-laden truck into Peshawar's five-star Pearl Continental late Tuesday.

It was the latest in a string of attacks in Pakistan widely seen as revenge by the Taliban for a punishing military offensive launched against insurgents around northwest Swat valley on April 26.

In a daily update, the army said that "during the last 24 hours... 34 terrorists were killed while three were apprehended" in Bannu, where artillery and helicopter gunships have been pounding rebel positions.

In South Waziristan itself, 22 suspected rebels were killed when the army repulsed an attack, the statement said.

"Late last night about 400 terrorists attacked Siplatoi and Jandola Fort... three soldiers embraced shahadat (martyrdom) and five were injured, while 22 terrorists were killed and a large number injured," the army said.

In Swat's Taliban stronghold of Peochar, 10 suspected militants were killed, taking the total killed in the last day to 66.

Pakistan's tribal zones harbor Taliban and al-Qaeda rebels who fled the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and Washington said militants are using the lawless areas to regroup and plan attacks on the West.

In other unrest Thursday, one person was killed and 35 injured when a bomb hidden in a toilet exploded on a train in southwestern Baluchistan province, railway official Manzoor Ahmad Magsi said.

The blast happened about 45 kilometers (25 miles) away from the provincial capital Quetta in an area rife with militant and sectarian violence.

Just outside Peshawar, gunmen attacked the car of northwest provincial minister for prisons Mian Nisar Gul. The official was wounded, while two of his body guards and one of the assailants were killed, police said.

Hotel blast probe

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack the Pearl Continental hotel and investigators continued their search for clues Thursday.

"We are investigating the blast from different angles. We have taken two hotel employees and four other suspects in for questioning," Qazi Jamilur Rehman, a senior police officer in Peshawar, told AFP.

Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said on Wednesday the blast was likely the work of Taliban seeking revenge for the northwest offensive against them, and warned of more attacks.

About 155 people have been killed in bombings since the military offensive began, with the Taliban claiming responsibility for a May 27 assault on a Lahore police building, warning of more "massive attacks."

The military says it has killed nearly 1,400 militants since the assault began on April 26, although the figures are impossible to verify.

We are investigating the blast from different angles. We have taken two hotel employees and four other suspects in for questioning

Qazi Jamilur Rehman, a senior police officer in Peshawar

Pakistan's decision to opt for military action in Swat has been helped by a shift in public opinion. That support might ebb if the welfare of some 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict in the northwest is mishandled.

Nine aid agencies said on Thursday in London they would be forced to stop or cut back supplies of aid unless a funding crisis was resolved.

The United Nations has appealed for $543 million, but has received only $138 million so far.

The United Nations is heavily involved in relief efforts, and five U.N. workers, including two foreigners, were among those killed in Tuesday's suicide attack.