ISLAMABAD (AFP) -Pakistan probed Al-Qaeda links to a suicide bombing that killed 42 recruits at an army base near the Afghan border, as Britain and the United States expressed outrage over the attack.
A bomber wearing a shawl on Thursday ran onto a parade ground where about 200 recruits were gathered for morning drill and blew himself up at the Dargai training camp in northwestern Malakand tribal area, military officials said.
Government and security officials said the attack was likely in retaliation for a missile strike late last month against an Islamic school believed to be an Al-Qaeda training camp in the neighbouring Bajaur tribal area.
The United States deplored the suicide attack, the deadliest since the Pakistan army was deployed in the restive tribal region about five years ago to hunt down Al-Qaeda militants.
“We condemn the suicide attack against an army training facility in Pakistan. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured in this heinous attack,” US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
“We applaud the government of Pakistan’s determination and resolve to fight against terror. We stand with the government and people of Pakistan in this struggle.”
British junior foreign minister Kim Howells said there could be “no justification” for the bombing, which left body parts and bloodied clothes strewn across the parade ground.
Security officials said they were exploring Al-Qaeda’s possible involvement in Wednesday’s attack in Dargai, near Bajaur where 80 people were killed in the airstrike on the Islamic school last Monday.
Top military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan told AFP Wednesday’s attack had “definite linkages to Bajaur where the army successfully destroyed a known training camp financed by Al-Qaeda.”
Sources close to the investigation said the bomber killed in the attack was accompanied by another person who fled. Sniffer dogs were used to pick up the trail of the fugitive.
A local official said search was underway in the remote region with troops ringing the village of Musabad near Dargai where the suspect is believed to be hiding.
Authorities were also preparing a sketch of the bomber whom witnesses said appeared to be in his 30s and with a small beard.
Some officials said a hardline Islamic group close to Afghanistan’s Taliban, the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM), could be behind the army camp suicide attack, which also wounded more than 20 recruits, some of them critically.
The Pakistani government says the madrassa hit last month in Bajaur was run by two wanted TNSM clerics, Maulvi Faqir and Maulvi Liaqat.
Liaqat was killed in the October 30 strike and Faqir is still at large.
Defence analyst and retired army general Talat Masood said the Dargai killings marked a dangerous new trend in the conflict.
“It shows the expanding nature of the conflict and changing tactics by militants,” Masood told AFP.
“The militants are now viewing Pakistan army as an extension of US forces in Iraq and US-Nato forces in Afghanistan.”
President Pervez Musharraf, who has earned the wrath of Islamic hardliners since joining the US-led “war on terror”, condemned the attack and vowed there would be no let-up in the fight to eliminate terrorism from the society.
However an alliance of six hardline religious parties called for Musharraf’s resignation over the incident.
Senior Islamic alliance’s leader Khurshid Ahmad described the attack as “a very serious national calamity.”