20 Pakistan soldiers killed as bomb hits military convoy

Pakistani soldiers cordon off a street leading to the site of a bomb attack on a security convoy in the city of Bannu on January 19, 2014

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A bomb claimed by the Pakistani Taliban killed 20 soldiers and wounded 30 when it ripped through a military convoy in the restive northwest on Sunday, officials said.

The attack, one of the deadliest to hit Pakistani security forces in recent years, happened in the city of Bannu near the North Waziristan tribal region which is a stronghold of militants linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device caused the blast," a senior military official told AFP, adding the exact circumstances were unclear.

An official statement said 20 soldiers were killed and 30 injured in the attack, which hit one of the vehicles in the convoy at 8:45 am.

The convoy was about to leave for the town of Razmak in North Waziristan when the blast hit one of the civilian vehicles hired to move troops.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid claimed responsibility.

"It was part of our fight against a secular system," he told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"We will carry out more such attacks in future," he said, adding the Taliban were seeking revenge for the deaths of their former chief Hakimullah Mehsud and deputy Waliur Rehman - both killed in US drone attacks.

Taliban insurgents have led a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007. They have carried out hundreds of attacks on security forces and government targets.

Bannu was the scene of a jailbreak last April when some 150 heavily-armed Islamists stormed a prison and freed 400 inmates including many militants.

An eyewitness told AFP by telephone the vehicle hit by the bomb was transformed into scorched metal.

"I collected human remains including hands and legs from the site after the attack," he said on condition of anonymity.

Body parts and soldiers' personal belongings littered the scene.

Pakistani troops have for years been battling the Taliban and other homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt next to the Afghan border, which Washington considers the main hub of militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan.

The army's headquarters in Rawalpindi came under attack in 2009, while major naval and air force bases have also been targeted in battles that have lasted for several hours.

A senior Pakistani general was killed in a blast last September along with two other soldiers in an attack claimed by the Taliban.

Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said recent attacks on the army were "testing the patience of the military" and were "extremely demoralising".

The civilian government led by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power after elections last year, has said it is seeking talks with the Taliban. But so far little progress has been seen and terror attacks rose 20 per cent in 2013.

Masood said the government's line was creating frustration within the army.

"It is becoming so evident to people that the government is so ineffective and paralysed and has no policy or strategy, while the army's hands are tied and it is being targeted and not being allowed to take action."

Pakistan, which joined the US-led "war on terror" in 2001, says more than 40,000 people have been killed in the country since then by militants who oppose Islamabad's US alliance.