PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – Islamist militants blew up a bridge in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, cutting a major supply line for Western troops in Afghanistan, a government official and a NATO spokesman said.
The attack was the latest in a series on the Khyber Pass by insurgents seeking to hamper the U.S.-led mission against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan confirmed that supplies along the route had been halted “for the time being,” but stressed the alliance was in no danger of running out of food, equipment or fuel.
The attack will add urgency to NATO and U.S. efforts to find alternative supply routes to landlocked Afghanistan, an already vital task given American plans to double its troop numbers in the country.
Meanwhile, authorities said they were questioning 15 people in connection with the abduction Monday of an American U.N. worker in the southwest of the country.
They said the men, among them several Afghans, were not considered suspects in the attack in which American John Solecki was kidnapped and his driver was shot and killed. The assault underscored the threats to foreigners in Pakistan as it battles al-Qaida militants.
Hidayat Ullah, a government official in the Khyber tribal area, said the bridge was about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the main city of Peshawar. He said trucks carrying NATO and U.S. supplies were unable to cross it.
It was not immediately clear whether supply convoys could reach Afghanistan through alternative routes in the region, nor how long it would take to rebuild it.
Up to 75 percent of the fuel and supplies destined for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan travel through Pakistan after being unloaded at the port of Karachi. Most are driven along the Khyber Pass.
Pakistan has dispatched paramilitary escorts for supply convoys and cracked down on militants in Khyber, but attacks have persisted in an area that up to three years ago was largely free of violence.
Solecki was kidnapped as he traveled to work in Quetta city in Baluchistan, a province that partly borders Afghanistan but has largely been spared the al-Qaida and Taliban insurgency in the northwest.
The government called the abduction a “dastardly terrorist act.” But police said it was not clear whether Islamist militants, criminals seeking a ransom payment or members of a regional separatist group were responsible.
“We have opened investigations, and our various teams are working on this case and the effort is to safely recover the man,” said senior police officer Wazir Khan.
Solecki headed the Quetta office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has worked for three decades in the region helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing violence in their homeland.
Suspected militants have attacked or kidnapped several foreigners in recent months.
In August, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in the northwest, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar by suspected militants. In November, also in Peshawar, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance.
Quetta has been mentioned by Afghan officials as a likely hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
Baluchistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more regional autonomy. They are not known to target foreigners.
Meanwhile, at least 35 Islamist militants were killed in an overnight operation in Swat Valley, an area in the northwest which has been increasingly overrun with insurgents, Pakistan’s military said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.
By RIAZ KHAN
Feb. 03, 2009