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Car bomb at refugee camp in northwestern Pakistan kills 13 as people line up to get food

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A car packed with explosives blew up inside a refugee camp on Thursday, killing 13 people in an attack that underscored the intensity of the conflict between the government and militants in northwestern Pakistan where refugees are sometimes caught in the middle of the fighting.

The Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency against the government in an attempt to establish an Islamic state and end Pakistan's co-operation with the United States in fighting militancy.

The blast occurred in Jalozai camp, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) southwest of Peshawar, one of three camps in Pakistan for people displaced by the fighting in the northwest. Militants often don't want residents to flee an area of conflict, partly because it deprives them of a civilian population where they can hide and undermines their claim that they have local support.

In addition to the 13 killed, another 25 people were wounded in the blast that happened just as hundreds of people lined up to get food, police officials said.

"It was very terrible, very terrible," said Mumtaz Bangash, an official with one of the aid groups who was working in an office about 30 metres (yards) from where the vehicle exploded. "We were very near. It was very loud. I have seen so many injured people."

Most of the people hit by the attack were from the Bajur and Khyber tribal areas along the Afghan border, said police officer Mohammad Zahid. The army has carried out operations against the Pakistani Taliban in both areas.

Among the dead were a security guard and an employee of a Pakistani aid group who were walking by when the bomb exploded, said Faiz Muhammed, who runs Khyber Paktunkhwa province's programs to help displaced people. The other 12 were camp residents.

Muhammed said that despite the blast, he and his staff would continue helping people at the camp, and he called on aid groups to increase assistance.

"We need to show these people that we will not be deterred," he said. "For the life of me, I cannot understand who would try to sabotage these people who are already affected by a war."

Jalozai, which is like a small city with a population of about 57,000 refugees, is run by the Pakistani government with assistance from various international aid agencies.

Many of the refugees get rations from the U.N. World Food Program, which feeds nearly 1 million people a month at Jalozai and other distribution points across the northwest.

Jean-Luc Siblot, the program's country director, said the organization would temporarily suspend its operations while discussions continue with the government on how to secure the food distribution centres. But he said there was "no question" that the World Food Program would resume operations soon.

The United Nations condemned the incident and called the attack "inhuman and totally unjustifiable." The group warned that further erosion of the security could hinder aid getting to those who need it most. All humanitarian services at the camp have been temporarily suspended while the U.N. assesses the security situation, the organization said in a statement.

Timo Pakkala, the U.N.'s humanitarian co-ordinator in Pakistan, called on the Pakistani government to strengthen security measures at all camps for internally displaced Pakistani refugees.

The population ebbs and flows at Jalozai, depending on the ongoing military operations in the tribal areas. In recent days, refugees from intense fighting in the remote Tirah Valley arrived up at the camp looking for help, Muhammed said.

Jalozai has schools, a hospital and job training programs designed to help people prepare for their eventual return home. Representatives from the various aid groups constantly travel back and forth to the camp, and foreign delegations often visit.

An attack like Thursday's is extremely rare, although there have been concerns over the years that militants would try to infiltrate Jalozai and other camps like it. Also, attacks against the refugees can be a way to punish them for fleeing in the first place and for accepting government and international help.

The Taliban in Pakistan withdrew an offer of holding peace talks with the Pakistani government this week, saying officials did not seem serious about sitting down at the negotiation table despite comments to the contrary.

Pakistan is preparing for a historic election on May 11 that will mark the first time an elected civilian government has survived a full term and handed over power to another civilian government. But the ruling Pakistan People's Party has watched its popularity erode in the past five years because of rising inflation, electricity blackouts and militant attacks.


Santana reported from Islamabad.

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