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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Suspected Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 40 people at the office compound of a government official in northwest Pakistan on Monday, demonstrating the ability of militants to strike high-profile targets in defiance of army offensives.
"There were two bombers. They were on foot. The first blew himself up inside the office of one of my deputies while the second one set off explosives when guards caught him," said Amjad Ali Khan, the top government official in Mohmand region, who appeared to be the target of the attack.
They were dressed in paramilitary uniforms, he said.
Pakistan's army has said several offensives it has launched since last year have weakened al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants.
"Whenever you put pressure on them, they fight back and this phenomenon will not be over in days. They will strike whenever they will get a chance," said Mehmood Shah, former chief of security in Pakistan's tribal regions, home to some of the world's most dangerous militant groups.
The dead in the suicide bombings in Mohmand's main town of Ghalanai included two Pakistani television journalists.
Hospital officials said 60 people were wounded in the attack in Mohmand, one of the lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal regions in Pakistan's northwest.
"I entered the compound. I heard a blast. I fell down, got up and then another explosion happened," said witness Ishtiaq Ahmed, from his hospital bed in the city of Peshawar.
"People were shouting and some paramilitary soldiers fired in the air. I saw charred bodies."
Pakistan Taliban spokesman Omar Khalid said the group carried out the Mohmand attack, saying it was in response to what he said was the Pakistani government's decision to hand over Arab militants to the United States.
"The blasts destroyed many rooms in the compound and our reports are 40 people were killed and many wounded," a senior security official in the region said.
When the bombers struck, Khan was holding talks with tribesmen on the need to strengthen militias helping the government fight militants, said one of his deputies.
The Taliban have beheaded pro-government tribal leaders and attacked members of those militias, known as Lashkars, in a bid to tighten their grip on areas of the northwest.
Their hold makes it difficult for Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies to gather intelligence.
That's one reason why the CIA has stepped up pilotless U.S. drone aircraft missile strikes on militants in the northwest, which have killed prominent al Qaeda and Taliban figures.
Missiles fired by two U.S. drone aircraft struck a vehicle and a house in the North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border on Monday, killing five militants. Pakistani intelligence officials in the region said. Militants often dismiss official death tolls in such attacks.
Little government control over the ethnic Pashtun northwest tribal region make it an ideal spot for militant groups to form alliances, run training grounds and plot attacks.
Their calls for holy war can appeal to young men who have yet to see the state deliver schools and jobs in Pakistan, which Washington sees as vital to its battle against an Afghan Taliban insurgency raging in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter said defeating militancy requires more than security crackdowns.
"It's a question of civil institutions, a question of economic growth, a question of making all the elements of society stronger," he told journalists in Pakistan's commercial capital Karachi, where officials say militants enjoy safe havens and benefit from funding networks.
The challenge in the northwest was highlighted by Munter's predecessor Anne Patterson in a February 21, 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. She predicted it would take 10-15 years to defeat a "witches brew" of militants there.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad and Sahar Ahmed in Karachi; Writing by Michael Georgy