PESHAWAR - A suicide car bomber targeted a US consulate vehicle in Peshawar Monday, in an attack officials said killed four, but there were conflicting accounts on whether Americans were among the dead.
The bomber struck during the morning rush hour, close to residential quarters used by the US consulate in Peshawar and near the office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Although the identities of the victims were unclear, it was the deadliest attack in two years targeting Americans in Pakistan, a frontline state in the US-led war on terror and the fight against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said four people were killed in the suicide attack, two of them Americans.
The US State Department confirmed that a consulate vehicle was hit in an apparent terrorist strike and said that four people were injured, but that no US consulate staff were killed.
Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said two Americans and two Pakistanis working for the consulate were receiving medical treatment for their wounds, and that the US was "seeking further information about other victims".
When told that the United States denied US consulate personnel were killed, Hussain said: "What can I do if they are denying? Police confirmed to me that two of the dead were American diplomats."
An AFP reporter saw two dead bodies in a hospital morgue, one of which was burnt beyond recognition. The other appeared to be of a local resident.
Police said they believed the two bodies belonged to passers by.
Pakistani security officials told AFP that the US vehicle was the target of Monday's attack. Hussain called the bombing "a dangerous move from the terrorists -- they want to terrorise the foreigners," he said.
Peshawar police chief Imtiaz Altaf said a suicide bomber rammed a "foreign mission car" with his vehicle, which was carrying up to 110 kilos of explosives, including more than 10 mortar shells. Altaf said up to 19 people were wounded.
A half-burnt US passport was recovered from a badly damaged car and seen by an AFP photographer.
The explosion gouged out a crater in the road, damaged vehicles and demolished the facing walls of four nearby houses, an AFP reporter said.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible, but Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups who are sworn enemies of the United States frequently carry out attacks and have strongholds in the nearby tribal belt.
They have vowed to avenge American drone strikes targeting Islamist militants in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas and thwart a rumored prospective Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan.
Although Islamabad is an ally of Washington, relations dramatically worsened after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore and US special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year.
The United States is currently weighing up whether to blacklist as terrorists the Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, whose leaders are understood to be based in Pakistan, in a move that could set back already fraught ties with Islamabad.
Anti-American sentiment has increased since Islamabad agreed in July to end a seven-month blockade on NATO goods crossing into Afghanistan. The blockade was imposed after botched US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.
The United States leads around 130,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan but is preparing to hand over security responsibility to Afghans by the end of 2014.
In May 2011, a Taliban bomb damaged a US consulate vehicle and wounded two US government employees in Peshawar just days after American commandos killed bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan hideout.
In February 2010, three American military personnel were killed and two wounded in a bomb attack at the inauguration of a renovated girls' school in the northwestern district of Lower Dir.