Twin suicide bomb blasts that killed at least 80 paramilitary force recruits in northwest Pakistan on Friday could trigger new doubts among Pakistanis about the value of Islamabad's already rocky relationship with Washington.
The bombers targeted scores of Frontier Constabulary paramilitary recruits who had just completed six months of training and were boarding vans outside the center's main gate before going on a 10-day leave, police and survivors said. The base is in Shabqadar, a town near the edge of a tribal area where Pakistani troops have struggled for years to rein in militants.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed the attack was meant to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos. The New York Times, however, reported late Friday that senior Pakistani police officials said the attack was more likely the work of a Taliban splinter group that has been fighting the Pakistani army in the region for two years.
No matter who's to blame, Pakistanis have grown increasingly worried that they will bear the brunt of retaliatory attacks by terrorists angered by the May 2 killing of the al-Qaida leader by U.S. Navy SEALs at a compound in the military city of Abbottabad. Washington's decision to carry out the mission without Islamabad's knowledge or authorization angered many in Pakistan who saw the effort as a gross violation of their country's sovereignty.
Reacting to news of the blasts, Bashir Bilour, a senior minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, questioned whether, despite the billions of dollars that Pakistan receives from Washington in economic and military aid, the country was paying too heavy a price for its role as an ally in the war on terror. The United States is giving $2 billion in assistance to Pakistan's military and another $1.5 billion has been pledged for civilian projects.
"I don't care if someone is giving us money; we are not a purchasable commodity," Bilour was quoted in the Los Angeles Times. "We cannot be bought. We can live in hunger, but we won't compromise our national interests."
In claiming responsibility for the attack, the Pakistani Taliban explained it was the first of a wave of planned strikes meant to avenge bin Laden's killing, according to news agencies and Pakistani media. Sikandar Hayat Khan Sherpao, a member of the provincial assembly in the area, said the training facility had been a frequent target of militants before.
The bombers struck at a time when recruits appeared to be particularly vulnerable — just as they were leaving the training center in large groups. As recruits loaded their luggage onto the vans, a bomber on a motorcycle drove up and detonated his explosives near the main gate. Moments later, a second bomber on foot detonated a larger blast as onlookers rushed to help recruits wounded in the first explosion.
Most of the dead were recruits, police said. About 150 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."
Tahir Ali, a Frontier Constabulary soldier assigned to the center, said 62 paramilitary troops were providing security as recruits boarded their vans about 6 a.m. However, while a nearby market was closed, the recruits were exposed to pedestrians and morning traffic moving past. 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.
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 who come from tribal regions in the northwest that serve as sanctuary for a broad array of militant groups.
"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, surrounded by 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."
Pakistan's spy chief apologizes for lapse
Pakistan's spy chief offered to resign Friday in the wake of public outrage over the U.S. operation that tracked and killed Osama bin Laden, the Washington Post reported.
Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, in what was reportedly highly emotional testimony at a private session before Parliament, apologized for the intelligence lapse and said he would leave his post if Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani deemed him unfit for the job, the Post reported, citing lawmakers who attended the session. Pasha said he had tendered his resignation to Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, but Kayani had refused to accept it, according to the report.
McClatchy Newspapers reported that Pasha also lashed out at the United States in his statement.
According to McClatchy, Pasha told the lawmakers, "At every difficult moment in our history, the U.S. has let us down. This fear that we can't live without the U.S. is wrong."
Pasha went on to say, according to McClatchy, that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had claimed repeatedly that Pakistan was shielding bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, but "whenever we asked for intelligence sharing and information so Pakistan could cooperate, it was never given."
It was unclear early today whether Gillani would dismiss Pasha, who has worked closely with the CIA since assuming his post in 2008. The session, which was called Friday afternoon to give parliamentarians a chance to question Kayani and Pasha about the bin Laden operation, was still underway past midnight.