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Pakistani Violence Spreads To Kashmir

Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Two soldiers have been killed in the first suicide bombing in Pakistani Kashmir, while several people were hurt in a blast near the Afghan border as the army prepares to attack Taliban in that region.

Islamist militants have carried out a series of bomb attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks in retaliation for a military offensive in the northwest but there have been no such attacks in Pakistan's part of the disputed Kashmir region.

The army launched its offensive after Taliban gains raised fears for U.S. ally Pakistan's future and worry about the safety of its nuclear arsenal.

The blast in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, will raise concern that the militants are expanding their campaign to distract the military as it closes in on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan on the Afghan border.

"The bomber blew himself up near a military vehicle. Two of our soldiers embraced martyrdom," a military spokesman told Reuters. Three soldiers were wounded in the attack.

Kashmir is at the core of a decades-old dispute between Pakistan and India and the cause of two of their three wars since their independence from British rule in 1947.

Separatist insurgents backed by Pakistan have been fighting Indian security forces in India's part of the Himalayan region for the past 20 years, but Pakistani Kashmir had been peaceful.

The United States has hailed Pakistan's action against the militants and on Wednesday the U.S. Senate approved tripling aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for five years as part of a U.S. plan to fight extremism with economic development.

U.S. President Barack Obama has put Afghanistan and Pakistan at the centre of his foreign policy agenda and has launched a strategy aimed at defeating al Qaeda and stabilising Afghanistan, where thousands of extra U.S. soldiers are arriving.

Al-Qaeda Ally

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani appealed on June 25 to visiting U.S. national security adviser Jim Jones for U.S. help to resolve the dispute with India over Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Gilani's office cited Jones as saying the U.S. government wanted to help the nuclear-armed neighbors resolve "core issues."

Jones is in India on June 26.

India broke off talks with Pakistan after militant attacks on the city of Mumbai in November. India blamed the attacks on Pakistan-based militants and wants Pakistan to act against them.

The United States is pushing for an easing of tension between the rivals so Pakistan can focus on fighting the Taliban.

The military has been launching air strikes on Mehsud's bases this month while soldiers have been securing main roads and sealing off his stronghold

Mehsud is a close Al-Qaeda ally and his followers have responded with a campaign of attacks, including suicide blasts, across the country.

Also on June 26, six people, including three soldiers, were wounded when a roadside bomb hit a military convoy in North Waziristan, another militant sanctuary on the Afghan border.

The United States has stepped up missile attacks by pilotless drones on militant targets in Pakistan's northwest since September last year.

On June 23, about 70 of Mehsud's militant followers were killed in drone strike in South Waziristan at a funeral of a militant commander killed in a similar attack earlier in the day.

It was the deadliest drone attack in Pakistan.

Pakistan said it has killed about 1,600 militants in the offensive in the former tourist valley of Swat and is in the final stages of securing the region before turning its full attention to South Waziristan.

Independent casualty figures are not available.

Nearly 2 million people have been displaced by the fighting, adding to the government's economic burden and raising the risk of an erosion of public support for the offensive.