Islamabad, Pakistan – More than 80 paramilitary soldiers were killed when at least one suicide bomber blew himself up Friday morning at a military training center in northwest Pakistan, a commander of the Frontier Constabulary said.
The bombing was the first major terrorist attack since the American raid in Abbottabad on May 2 that killed Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility in a statement shortly after the bombing, saying that the attack was in retaliation for the May 2 American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But senior police officials said that they doubted the attack was actually carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, or that it was in revenge for the Americans’ action.
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They said the attack was most likely the work of a splinter group of the Taliban, led by Umar Khalid, that is fighting the Pakistani Army in the nearby mountainous region of Mohmand. Mr. Khalid has not claimed responsibility for the attack, police officials said. The Pakistani Taliban have issued several statements recently claiming responsibility for attacks that they did not initiate, police officials said.
Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, told reporters that officials were withholding assessing blame for the deadly attack.
“We don’t believe in directly blaming any country without any proof,” he said.
Sikandar Hayat Khan Sherpao, a member of the provincial assembly of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, formerly North-West Frontier Province, said the training facility had been a frequent target of militant attacks. “Basically, the threat is from Mohmand Agency, where militants still have pockets and are active,” he said.
“I feel that this attack is not in retaliation to the Abbottabad incident. Basically, in the last one and a half months, a new military operation has been started in Mohmand as the army is going against militants,” he said. “So this attack can be seen as a retaliation to the Mohmand operation.”
The suicide bomber attacked members of the Frontier Constabulary at Shabqadar Fort in the town of Charsadda as they were preparing to return to their homes on a 10-day leave after six months of training, said Liaqat Khan, the police chief in nearby Peshawar.
The death toll was expected to rise and could end up to be the highest number of law enforcement officials to be killed in a terrorist attack in recent years, Mr. Khan said. A second bomber was likely to have been involved in the attack, he said.
The bombing killed 82 cadets and wounded about 150 people, said Muhammad Akbar Hoti, the commandant of the Frontier Constabulary.
The bomber was in a car outside the fort when he detonated the explosives about 6 a.m.
The death toll was high because the men were told to wait for their transport home outside the gates of the facility, giving the attackers opportunity to kill many of them, a provincial security official said. Instead of waiting inside, they were milling around the entrance to the fort waiting for trucks to take them to their villages, he said.
“There are two occasions in one’s life to celebrate: wedding and going home on vacations at the end of six months of training,” said Mohammad Sardar, in his mid-20s, who was admitted to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar with a head injury. “So we were all happy, celebrating the occasion, with bedrolls on our heads, thinking of home, when the first explosion occurred, followed by a second.”
The Frontier Constabulary, which dates from the 1800s, is run by the Pakistani police authorities. It has about 70,000 paramilitary soldiers who man checkpoints in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, and provide security at foreign embassies and consulates in major cities. For the sons of many poor families, landing a job in the constabulary is considered a prize.
The bombing appears to be connected to militants who are fighting the Pakistan Army in Mohmand, a tribal region near Charsadda.
The army recently started the third phase of a ferocious two-year offensive aimed at trying to drive militants out of Mohmand. The army has recently suffered heavy losses in the fighting.
The Taliban in Mohmand have been able to force the Pakistani Army into a lengthy campaign by seeking refuge in sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. NATO forces in Afghanistan have been assisting Pakistan by going after the militants as they escape across the border.
The Frontier Constabulary forces who were the target of the suicide attack on Friday are not involved in the fighting in Mohmand. They serve as security guards at checkpoints in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, but their graduation, officials said, provided an accessible target for the militants to drive home their message.