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88 dead after suicide car bomb at Pakistan volleyball game

Investigators sifted through rubble Saturday after a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives-filled vehicle in a crowd watching a volleyball game in northwest Pakistan, killing at least 88.

Friday's bombing marked a bloody start to 2010 for Pakistan, which has seen a surge in attacks blamed on the Taliban in recent months as Islamist fighters avenge military operations aimed at crushing their northwest strongholds.

The huge blast was Pakistan's deadliest in more than two months, triggering the collapse of more than 20 houses, some with families inside, in a village bordering a Taliban stronghold, officials said.

The attack was condemned by Britain and the United States, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowing the US would continue supporting Pakistani people "in their efforts to chart their own future free from fear and intimidation".

The bomber detonated his explosives-packed vehicle as fans gathered at a volleyball court to watch two local sides face off in the village of Shah Hasan Khan, in Bannu district, bordering Taliban stronghold South Waziristan.

"The villagers were watching the match between the two village teams when the bomber drove his double-cabin pick-up vehicle into them and blew it up," district police chief Mohammad Ayub Khan said.

"The death toll has risen to 88 and 37 others were wounded," Khan said.

Six children and five paramilitary soldiers were among the dead, he added.

The tournament was organised by the local peace committee, who had supported a government operation to expel militants from the area, Khan said.

It was the highest death toll from a suspected militant strike since a massive car bomb on October 28 killed 125 people in a crowded market in the northwestern provincial capital Peshawar.

Ramzan Bittani, a 33-year-old driver, said by telephone from a local hospital that he had left the match to take a call.

"As I was listening, I saw a huge blue and white flash followed by an ear-piercing blast. When I was able to figure out what had happened, I saw bodies and smoke all around. My hand was fractured," he said.

Anwer Khan, 18, a student, said that he had just stepped out of his house and he saw a black pick-up speeding up towards the spectators.

"A giant flame leaped towards the sky. There was bright light everywhere, just like a flash, and then a very huge blast shook everything. Two pellets hit my forehead and blood started flowing," Khan said.

District police chief Khan blamed the bomb on Islamist extremists who were the target of a military operation in Bannu district last year.

Security has plummeted over the past two-and-a-half years in Pakistan, where militant violence has killed more than 2,800 people since July, 2007.

The northwest has suffered the brunt of the militant campaign, with suicide bombings increasingly targeting civilians.

The military is now locked in its most ambitious assault yet on Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, sending 30,000 troops into battle in the district on the Afghan border on October 17.

Washington, however, is urging Pakistan to do more to also stamp out Al-Qaeda sanctuaries and dismantle havens of militants who cross the border and attack US and Nato troops stationed in Afghanistan.

Officials Friday confirmed that at least four militants were killed in a US missile strike on a compound in Machikhel village, 25 kilometres east of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border.

Such US strikes in Pakistan have killed at least 662 people since August 2008 and greatly inflame anti-American sentiment in the nation.


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