KHAR, Pakistan — A burqa-clad female suicide bomber lobbed hand grenades, then detonated her explosive belt among a crowd at an aid center Saturday, killing at least 45 people in militants' latest strike against the authorities' control over the key tribal region bordering northeast Afghanistan.
Police believed it was the first time Islamic militants have sent a woman to carry out a suicide attack in Pakistan, where the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents continues to spill over despite Pakistan's claims of victory on its side of the porous border.
The bomber, dressed in the head-to-toe garment that women commonly wear in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was challenged by police at a checkpoint, officials said. She then charged toward a group of 300 people lined up at the food aid distribution center in the town of Khar, tossing two grenades before blowing herself up, the officials said. The crowd was made up of people who have fled conflicts elsewhere in the area.
President Barack Obama condemned the bombing as "outrageous." In a statement released in Honolulu, where he was spending Christmas, Obama said: "Killing innocent civilians outside a World Food Program distribution point is an affront to the people of Pakistan, and to all humanity."
Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani also condemned the bombing and said Pakistanis are "united against them."
The attack in Khar, the main city in the Bajur region of Pakistan's northwest, came a day after 150 militants waged pitched gunbattles against five security posts in the adjourning Mohmand tribal region to the south. Eleven soldiers and 24 militants were killed.
Helicopter gunships backed by artillery continued the battle Saturday, pounding enemy hideouts and killing 40 militants, said Amjad Ali Khan, the top government official in Mohmand.
The tribal regions are of major concern to the United States because they have been havens for militants fighting NATO and American troops across the border in Afghanistan. The United States has long pressured Pakistan to clear the area of insurgents.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Saturday's suicide attack in Khar, through its spokesman, Azam Tariq.
Tariq suggested the victims may have been targeted because most of them belonged to the Salarzai tribe, which was among the first to set up a militia to fight the Taliban in 2008.
The attack killed 45 people, including six police officers, and wounded more than 100, at least 30 critically, said Tariq Khan, a government official in Bajur.
Police said the victims were from various parts of Bajur who gather daily at the center to collect food tokens distributed by the World Food Program and other agencies.