A suicide bomber targeted police recruits undergoing training in Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Sunday, killing at least 15 trainees and renewing fears that a region touted as safe by the government remains vulnerable to Taliban militants.
The attack occurred in the valley’s largest city, Mingora, where thousands of Pakistanis have been returning to their homes and businesses after spending weeks displaced by the war between government troops and Taliban fighters.
Authorities said they were not sure how the bomber got onto the grounds of the police station. Mingora police said he may have scaled a 6-foot wall, but they are also investigating the possibility that he blended in with recruits as they arrived for the training session.
North-West Frontier Province Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said at least 12 other recruits were injured in the attack. About 50 community police recruits were undergoing training when the bomber struck, said Mingora police officer Anwar Khan.
“Under the circumstances, you can say that security was less than what was required,” said Idrees Khan, a Swat regional police official.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, police said an explosion Sunday set several NATO fuel tankers on fire at the border crossing into Afghanistan at Chaman, the Associated Press reported. Police officer Abdul Rauf said he saw three oil tankers, two container trucks and two dump trucks on fire at the site in Baluchistan province.
The attack on police recruits in Mingora will probably rekindle debate about the Pakistani government’s assurances that the Swat Valley’s major cities and towns have been secured and that a sense of normality is returning.
It also suggests that, despite the government’s portrayal of a Taliban insurgency in the throes of disarray after the death of leader Baitullah Mahsud, the militant group continues to pose a major threat to Pakistanis, even in places such as Mingora that are heavily fortified with troops and police.
The attack Sunday was the deadliest act of violence to strike Mingora since Pakistani security forces wrapped up their offensive against Taliban militants in Swat and allowed residents to begin returning.
The government sent troops into the valley and surrounding districts in spring after Taliban leaders reneged on a truce in which authorities had agreed to the movement’s demand to allow the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Swat if its fighters agreed to lay down arms. The militants did not disarm and instead expanded their reach into the neighboring Buner district, within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital.
Pakistani troops have succeeded in driving militants out of the valley’s major cities and towns. But militants remain in Swat, hiding out in densely wooded mountainsides. The offensive also failed to capture the area’s top Taliban leaders, including Maulana Qazi Fazlullah.
Pakistanis returning to Mingora and other towns say they desperately want to resume the lives they had before the offensive, but they remain fearful that the Taliban has merely retreated and will one day return.
On Sunday, Hussain insisted that the Taliban had been defeated in the valley. “Their backbone has been broken,” he said, “but still, we should be ready for incidents like this.”
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.