PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — A roadside bombing in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border killed nine paramilitary soldiers on Thursday, the army said. The attack came as the Pakistani military test-fired a ballistic missile it said could carry a nuclear warhead, an exercise meant to showcase the nuclear-armed nation's capabilities.
Pakistan is under mounting pressure to fight militants in the volatile North Waziristan region along the boundary with Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops from the neighboring country by the end of the year.
But the government has balked from launching such an operation, fearing a backlash as it battles militants elsewhere in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has made negotiations with the Taliban a centerpiece of his government in an effort to end violence that has killed thousands, issued a statement condemning Thursday's bombing.
The bomb "planted by terrorists" near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan struck a military convoy, killing nine and wounding several troops, according to an army statement.
The army responded by sending helicopters, which bombed suspected militant hideouts in the region, though it was unclear if there were any casualties in the strikes, two intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
In the capital, Islamabad, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the slain soldiers were escorting trucks carrying water supplies. He refused to speculate on who was behind the bombing and said authorities were still investigating.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, but suspicion is likely to fall on a mix of militants from Pakistani and al-Qaida-linked foreign outfits, which have safe havens there.
The Pakistani Taliban, who also operate in the area, have been fighting against the state in a bid to overthrow the government and install their own harsh brand of Islamic Shariah.
But as negotiations with the government got underway, the Taliban have refrained from large-scale attacks — though they called off a 40-day ceasefire declared on March 1. They have also fired rockets at army camps and set off roadside bombs, and those attacks — along with attacks by splinter groups and other militants — have raised questions over whether the talks with the Taliban could help bring peace.
Supporters of the talks argue that the negotiations were the only way forward to end the cycle of militant violence. Critics say the militants have always used such deals to strengthen their ranks, regroup and strike back with more force.
In the southwestern city of Quetta, a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded at a bazaar on Thursday, killing one person and wounding 12, senior police officer Abdur Razzaq said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack but authorities have blamed small separatist groups for similar bombings in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's impoverished Baluchistan province.
On Monday, militants attacked a NATO supply convoy en route to Afghanistan, killing two drivers west of the city of the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Also Thursday, Pakistan's military said it successfully test-fired a short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The Hatf III Ghaznavi missile, with a range of 290 kilometers (180 miles), was launched at the end of a training exercise by the Army Strategic Force Command, the military said.
The chief of the army staff Gen. Raheel Sharif and other senior army officers, scientists and engineers attended the launch from an undisclosed location.
An army statement quoted Sharif as saying that Pakistan was fully capable of safeguarding the nation's security against any aggression.
Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998 and routinely test-fires what it claims are indigenously developed missiles.
The world community closely watches Pakistan's weapons program as it has fought three wars with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India, since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.