Pakistan provincial leader survives assassination bid

The chief minister of a restive northwestern Pakistani province on the frontline of the fight against homegrown militants survived a Taliban suicide bombing assassination bid on Friday.

Ameer Haider Khan Hoti was travelling to a political rally when the attacker threw a grenade at his car before blowing himself up, senior local official Zaka Ullah told AFP, but no one was hurt.

The attack came less than two months after the Pakistani Taliban killed Hoti's number two Bashir Bilour in a suicide bombing at a political meeting in Peshawar, the main city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is frequently hit by shootings and bombings.

Danishwar Khan, police chief for Mardan, where the attack took place, confirmed it was a suicide bombing.

"The target of the attack was the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He and other associates remained safe in the attack," he told AFP.

Mardan lies around 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Peshawar, which is on the edge of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, known as a haunt of Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked militants.

The umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction said it was behind the attempt on Hoti's life as well as a series of bombings in the northwest on Thursday that killed at least 16 people.

"We claim responsibility for today's attack on Chief Minister Hoti. We also claim responsibility for yesterday's attacks," TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"Be sure that we will carry out more such attacks."

The TTP has stepped up its campaign of violence in recent months, leading to fears that violence could mar general elections scheduled to take place by mid-May.

Earlier this month the group proposed talks with Islamabad provided that certain opposition politicians act as guarantors, but the government insists the militants must declare a ceasefire before coming to the negotiating table.

Ehsan rejected the condition.

"We are ready for peace talks but will not announce a ceasefire," he said.

A conference in Islamabad on Thursday organised by Hoti and Bilour's secular Awami National Party called for "peace through dialogue" but offered no concrete suggestions on how this might be achieved.