PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – A suicide car bomber struck a military truck in northwestern Pakistan on Thursday, killing at least 20 people two days after troops were sent to the lawless region to quell pro-Taliban militants.

The blast came a week after the bloody assassination attempt in the southern city of Karachi on ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who plans to start traveling elsewhere in Pakistan on Saturday.

The latest attack underlined the worsening security situation in the country, particularly in the conservative tribal region near the border with Afghanistan where militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida increasingly hold sway. The rise of militancy in the region has shaken the authority of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on terror.

The bomber hit a truck carrying about 45 Frontier Constabulary forces near the main police station in Swat district, where 2,500 paramilitary troops were deployed this week to counter a militant cleric. The blast tipped the truck on its side and detonated ammunition inside.

Police officer Ajab Khan said 20 people were killed and 34 wounded, mostly soldiers. Some bystanders in shops and restaurants were also hit.

“It was a huge explosion. Then the truck was on fire. There were flames, smoke and people crying,” said Taj Mohammed Khan, 23, a college student who was drinking tea at a nearby restaurant.

Police said it was a suicide attack. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The paramilitary troops were deployed to the area Tuesday to confront militants loyal to Maulana Fazlullah, who has called for Taliban-style rule and holy war against the government.

But Fazlullah’s spokesman denied the cleric’s involvement in the bombing, saying he wanted peace in the region. The cleric was only trying to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, by punishing criminals, including “murderers, abductors and wine drinkers.”

“There is absolutely no need for the army here,” spokesman Sirajuddin, who goes by one name, told The Associated Press by phone. “This happens when the army comes here.”

Fazlullah is the leader of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed, a banned pro-Taliban militant group which sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Bhutto, whose grand homecoming to Pakistan after an eight-year exile was shattered by a suicide bombing that killed 136 people, is widely seen as a possible partner of Musharraf in fighting extremism if she fares well in upcoming parliamentary elections.

On Thursday, Bhutto announced a plan to travel to her hometown of Larkana on Saturday to pay homage at her father’s tomb, about 270 miles northwest of Karachi.

She has also indicated that she plans to travel to Lahore and the capital of Islamabad, despite her professed fear that she will be attacked again.

On Thursday, she told reporters that authorities had yet to meet her requests for a vehicle with darkened windows, for her guards to carry guns, and for four police cars to escort her car, instead of the current two.

“I should be made to feel secure. I should not made to feel insecure,” she said.

Police in Larkana said they were confident they could protect her. Some 300 police were already deployed at the airport or along roads that she might use.

“We have received no intelligence report so far suggesting any threat to Benazir Bhutto’s life here in her hometown,” said Nisar Channa, a senior police officer.

Bhutto has been staying at her heavily guarded Karachi residence for the past week, taking only a couple quick trips to the city, once to visit victims of the bombing in a hospital.

Bhutto has blamed Islamic militants for the attack on her convoy, but also accused elements in the government and security services of complicity in assassination plots, demanding international experts be called in to help in the investigation. The government has rejected such a move.

Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Zarar Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-25-07 1735EDT

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