ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed 24 people in Pakistan on Thursday in the latest militant attack since the death of Osama bin Laden which has angered Pakistan and led to a call for the United States to withdraw some of its military trainers.
The killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces in a Pakistani town on May 2 has sparked a wave of militant attacks and has also led to a sharp erosion of trust between Pakistan and its ally, the United States.
A suicide car-bomber set off explosives outside a police station in the northwestern town of Hangu a day after a similar attack destroyed a police station in the city of Peshawar.
“We’re trying to remove rubble and there’s fear some people could be trapped,” a government official in Hangu, Adil Siddique, told Reuters by telephone.
Police said the toll could rise beyond 24 as many among 45 people wounded were in serious condition.
Pakistani Taliban militants, allied with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility. They have vowed revenge for bin Laden’s death.
The raid that killed bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Islamabad, intensified U.S. questions about Pakistan’s possible role in sheltering militants, straining an already fragile relationship.
But many Pakistanis saw the top-secret U.S. raid as a violation of sovereignty and some members of parliament have asked for a review of ties with Washington, which gives Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to help in the war against Islamist militants.
Pakistan had informed the United States in the last week or two that it would not need some U.S. special forces trainers advising the Pakistani military, the Pentagon said.
Pakistani security officials said the decision came three days after the al Qaeda leader’s death.
“We don’t need unnecessary people here. They cause problems for us instead of being helpful,” said a Pakistani security official who declined to be identified. He said the withdrawal might start by early June.
Another Pakistani security official said the decision was made because of concerns over the Americans’ security and because “resentment all around was very high.”
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said there had been “no real change” to the small U.S. military training mission in Pakistan.
The number of trainers in Pakistan was not disclosed but Lapan said the entire military mission has ranged between 200 and 300 people.
Other Pakistani and U.S. military sources in Pakistan have said the special forces training component formerly numbered about 120 and would be drawn down to less than 50.
Other U.S. troops are involved in helicopter maintenance, liaising with the Pakistani military and aid efforts. It is unclear if they will also be withdrawn.
“Essential people are being asked to stay,” the second security official said. “This includes SSG (special forces) and technical assistance.”
While seeking answers to questions surrounding bin Laden’s movements, the United States has been keen to prevent a complete breakdown in relations with an ally whose help is seen as essential for efforts to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan.
While hinting that Pakistan could do more in its counter-terrorism efforts, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised it as a “good partner.”
“We do have a set of expectations that we are looking for the Pakistani government to meet, but I want to underscore in conclusion it is not as though they have been on the sidelines,” Clinton told a news conference in Paris. She gave no details.
“They have been actively engaged in their own bitter fight … and we are going to look to put our partnership on as strong a foundation going forward as possible,” she said.
As the United States starts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year and some U.S. lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to reconsider assistance to Pakistan in the wake of the bin Laden raid.
U.S. aid has also led to quarrels between Pakistan’s civilian government and its armed forces over how U.S. military funds were spent, according to Wikileaks, highlighting the turf battles and lack of transparency over billions of dollars.
U.S. diplomatic cables in 2009, published by Dawn newspaper, showed then Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin asked the U.S. embassy to keep him informed of American aid given directly to the military, saying the army chief did not pass on the information.
At the same time, some Pakistan government officials feared money from a special reimbursement fund was being “siphoned off into private coffers.” Washington, too, was concerned military funds were being diverted by the civilian government for social programs, cables said.
Many critics wonder if U.S. aid is misspent to beef up Pakistan’s military capabilities against old rival India, or possibly to bolster its nuclear weapons programme.
Pakistan has received $20.7 billion worth of U.S. assistance over the past decade, about two-thirds of it military aid intended to improve the army’s capabilities against militants.