By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Taliban suicide bomber killed eight people outside a key Pakistani airforce facility Friday, with officials quick to deny suggestions the target was linked to the country's nuclear program.
The bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body at a checkpoint outside the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, 75 km (45 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
Hours later, a car bomb exploded outside a restaurant in the northwestern city of Peshawar, wounding 15 people, two of them seriously, officials said.
The attacks were launched amid a major army offensive against Pakistani Taliban militant strongholds in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.
The offensive has raised fears the insurgents will step up a suicide bombing campaign on urban targets. More than 150 people have been killed in a series of brazen attacks in the past few weeks.
"Eight people were killed and 13 were wounded, three of them seriously," said Shaukat Sultan, head of the main government hospital in Kamra, scene of Friday's airbase attack.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the country's nuclear infrastructure was safe and faced no threat from Taliban militants.
An airforce official quickly dispelled suggestions on Friday that the Kamra facility was linked to the weapons program.
"It's nonsense. It's rubbish," the official told Reuters.
The bomber struck a day after an army brigadier and his driver were killed in a drive-by shooting in Islamabad, while at least six people, including two suicide bombers, died in twin attacks at an Islamic University in the capital on Tuesday.
Analysts have warned of the possibility of more attacks as the militants come under pressure in South Waziristan, with the Taliban hoping bloodshed and disruption will cause the government and ordinary people to lose their appetite for the offensive.
The offensive is a test of the government's determination to tackle Islamic fundamentalists, and the campaign is being closely followed by the U.S. and other powers embroiled in Afghanistan.
It is also affecting financial markets, with the benchmark KSE index falling around six percent this week. The index rose slightly in the morning session Friday, but remained jittery following the Peshawar blast.
"The law and order situation once again got the better of the market, and investors started selling their shares after the blast in Peshawar," said Asad Iqbal, managing director at Ismail Iqbal Securities Ltd.
Remote and rugged South Waziristan, with its rocky mountains and patchy forests cut through by dry creeks and ravines, is a hub for militants who flit between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members.
The military said 13 militants and two soldiers were killed during the past 24 hours, though a militant spokesman said they have lost just three fighters since the offensive began on Saturday. There was no independence verification of the claims and counter-claims.
Foreign journalists are not allowed anywhere near the battle zone and it is dangerous even for Pakistani reporters to visit. Independent confirmation of casualty figures has been impossible.
Jacques de Maio, who runs the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross's operations in the region, said that "protection from the effects of armed violence" had become the top priority for his neutral aid agency in South Waziristan.
It was very hard, he told a U.N. briefing in Geneva, to reach uprooted people and the families hosting them.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled the area, with about 32,000 leaving since October 13, the United Nations said.
Some 15 women and children travelling to a wedding were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine in another volatile tribal region on the Afghan border, officials said.
(For a graphic showing the whereabouts of fighting, see http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/RNGS/OCT/PAK5.jpg)
(Additional reporting by Izaz Mohmand, Sahar Ahmed and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Writing by David Fox; Editing by Ron Popeski)