DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — A roadside bomb hit a Pakistani army convoy Sunday in a mountainous militant stronghold in the northwest, killing 14 soldiers, one of the deadliest attacks against the army in that sector, intelligence officials said.
The North Waziristan tribal area is a major trouble spot that the military has been reluctant to tackle. The remote region is home to Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida militants at war with the government. It is also used as a sanctuary by other militants who have focused their attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.
The attack Sunday occurred near Dosalli village in North Waziristan, said Pakistani intelligence officials. The blast destroyed two vehicles and damaged a third, they said.
The 14 dead and 20 wounded were brought to a military hospital in the nearby town of Miran Shah, the officials said.
Pakistani military officials confirmed the bombing but said four soldiers were killed and 11 others wounded. The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled.
Then officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Pakistani military is worried that if it targets its enemies in North Waziristan, that could trigger a backlash whereby other militants in the area turn against Pakistan. The most powerful group in the area, the Afghan Haqqani network, is also believed to be seen by the army as a potential ally in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw, making a military offensive even more complicated.
North Waziristan has been a sore point in relations between Pakistan and the United States. Washington has repeatedly pushed Islamabad to launch an operation in the area, especially against the Haqqani network, considered one of the most dangerous groups fighting in Afghanistan. But Pakistan has refused.
North Waziristan has also become an increasing problem for Pakistan. It is the only part of the tribal region where the army has not conducted an offensive, and many Pakistani Taliban militants have fled there to escape army operations. The Taliban and their allies have staged hundreds of attacks across Pakistan that have killed thousands of people.
One of those allies, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, carried out a twin bombing at a billiards hall in the southwest city of Quetta on Thursday that killed 86 people. The attack targeted minority Shiite Muslims, whom many radical Sunnis consider heretics.
Thousands of Shiites protested in Quetta for a third day Sunday, pressing their demands for greater security by blocking a main road with dozens of coffins of relatives killed in the attack on the billiards hall.
Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf traveled to Quetta on Sunday and met with representatives from the Shiite community in an attempt to pacify the protesters, said Dawood Agha, who attended the meeting.
The country's religious affairs minister failed the day before to persuade them to bury those killed in attack.
The group is demanding that the provincial government be dismissed and the army take over responsibility for the city, Shiite leader Ibrahim Hazara said.
On Saturday the prime minister ordered authorities to give policing powers to paramilitary forces in Quetta to improve law and order, but the move did not appear to satisfy the protesters.
More than 400 Shiites died in attacks in Pakistan in 2012, the deadliest year in history for the minority sect, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights group has accused the government of not doing enough to protect Shiites.
Also Sunday, a Pakistani cleric and thousands of his supporters left the eastern city of Lahore on a "long march" to demand sweeping election reforms before national elections expected this spring.
Police officer Suhail Sukhera estimated the crowd to be at least 15,000. They left for Islamabad in hundreds of buses, cars and trucks. Some waved flags and pictures of the 61-year-old Sunni Muslim cleric, while others shouted, "Revolution is our goal, brave and religious leader Qadri."
Critics of Qadri, who returned last month after years in Canada, are worried he is bent on derailing elections, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military — allegations the cleric has denied.
Qadri has a large following that extends outside Pakistan and has a reputation for speaking out against terrorism and promoting his message through hundreds of books, an online television channel and videos.
Now, Qadri's focus is on Pakistan's election laws. He is suggesting vaguely worded changes, such as making sure candidates are honest as well as ending exploitation and income disparities so that poor people are free to vote for whomever they want.
His plan to hold a massive rally in Islamabad on Monday has alarmed many members of Pakistan's political system. The government has deployed a large number of police throughout the capital and set up shipping containers to block protesters from reaching sensitive areas.
Qadri accused the provincial government of Punjab, where Lahore is the capital, of harassing his supporters Sunday to make it difficult for them to participate in the march.
"These negative tactics will not work, and God willing the march will reach Islamabad with a sea of people," Qadri told reporters.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed to this report.