Twin suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 80 paramilitary recruits in northwest Pakistan, in an attack that Taliban militants said was to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos, could trigger new doubts among Pakistanis about the value of Islamabad’s already rocky relationship with Washington.
The bombers targeted Frontier Constabulary recruits who had just completed six months of training and were boarding vans outside the training center’s main gate to go on a 10-day leave, police and survivors said. The base is located in Shabqadar, a town near the edge of Mohmand, a tribal area in the northwest where Pakistani troops have struggled for years to rein in Pakistani Taliban militants.
The attack is Pakistan’s deadliest yet this year, and the first major terrorist strike in the country since Bin Laden’s killing.
Pakistanis have grown increasingly worried that they will bear the brunt of retaliatory attacks by militants angered by the May 2 killing of the Al Qaeda leader. U.S. Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden at the compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad where he had hidden for five years. Washington’s decision to carry out the mission without Islamabad’s knowledge or authorization angered many Pakistanis who saw the raid as a gross violation of their country’s sovereignty.
Reacting to news of the suicide bombings, Bashir Bilour, a senior minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, questioned whether, despite the billions of dollars that Pakistan receives from Washington in civilian and military aid, the country was paying too heavy a price for its role as a U.S. ally.
“I don’t care if someone is giving us money; we are not a purchasable commodity,” Bilour told reporters in Peshawar. “We cannot be bought. We can live in hunger, but we won’t compromise our national interests.”
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was the first of a wave of planned strikes meant to avenge Bin Laden’s killing, according to news agencies and Pakistani news media. The Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, is closely allied with Al Qaeda and is one of several militant groups that have provided the terrorist network sanctuary in the volatile tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
The bombers struck at a time when recruits appeared to be particularly vulnerable, just as they were leaving the training center in large groups.
Tahir Ali, a Frontier Constabulary soldier assigned to the center, said 62 paramilitary troops were providing security as recruits left about 6 a.m. But though a nearby market was closed, the recruits were exposed to pedestrians and morning traffic. More than 800 recruits were streaming out of the base, bags in hand.
“People shouldn’t have gathered in big numbers in such a place,” said Bilour, the senior minister.
As the recruits loaded their luggage onto the vans, a man on a motorcycle drove up near the main gate and detonated his explosives. Moments later, a second bomber on foot detonated a larger explosion as onlookers rushed to help recruits wounded in the first blast.
Most of the dead were recruits, police said. More than 100 people were injured.
“I was just four yards from the gate when the first blast threw me to the ground,” recruit Ajsam Ali, 20, said from his hospital bed in Peshawar, where he was recovering from wounds to his head, left arm and left foot. “The air was black with smoke and I couldn’t see. It was chaos. People were screaming. There were dead and maimed people lying all over the street.”
Maroof Khan, a 20-year-old paramilitary recruit, said he was loading his baggage onto a van when the first blast knocked everyone to the ground.
“I was hit in my leg, but I managed to hobble to a nearby mosque,” he said. “Everyone was in a panic. Suddenly, there was a second, much larger explosion. I looked around and saw many of my friends dead on the ground.”
Poorly paid and poorly equipped, the Frontier Constabulary paramilitary force provides security in Pakistan’s volatile northwest where several militant groups maintain strongholds. The average soldier makes $137 a month. The force’s recruits are men in their early 20s from tribal regions in the northwest.
“This is so cruel, attacking young recruits like this,” Shafiq ur-Rehman, a 21-year-old recruit with a bandaged ankle, said from his Peshawar hospital bed, in a ward filled with recruits in bloodied tunics, some of them wailing in pain. “We’re just innocent kids. We’ve never harmed anyone. These are young boys that they’ve killed today.”
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.