PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) -A suicide bomber killed at least 35 soldiers at an army base in northwest Pakistan in an attack officials said was likely revenge for a missile strike against an Al-Qaeda training camp.
Witnesses said the huge explosion at Dargai in Northwest Frontier Province sowed panic, and left body parts and shredded clothing scattered across a parade ground where trainee soldiers had gathered for morning assembly.
Military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan condemned the bombing, which targetted a training center run by the Punjab Regiment, as a terrorist attack and warned the death toll could rise.
“Some 35 trainees died in the attack and 20 others are wounded. Some are in a critical condition,” Sultan told AFP on Wednesday.
An interior ministry official said the bomber targetted recruits on a parade ground next to the regiment’s main training center.
“The bomber was clad in a shawl and he blew himself up in the middle of the assembly causing largescale casualties,” the official told AFP.
Hidayatullah Khan, who saw the explosion from his newspaper stall just a few hundred metres (yards) from the parade ground, described the grisly aftermath.
“Human limbs, army caps and shoes were scattered all around the blood-splashed ground,” he said.
A local official said the military cordoned off the area around the military base and put up barricades to prevent people leaving or entering the tribal district some 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad.
The area had until now not been touched by the fighting between Al-Qaeda-backed militants and the Pakistani military, but it is only 80 kilometres southeast of the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border where the alleged Al-Qaeda base — an Islamic school — was struck nine days ago.
An interior ministry official said the bombing appeared to be a revenge attack for the military’s strike on the Islamic school which left 80 people dead.
“It appears to be a revenge attack by militants who lost a sanctuary in Bajaur,” he said.
“They were training suicide bombers at the madrassa and we have reasons to believe that the attack on the army recruitment and training center was linked to the army action against terrorists,” he said.
The government alleged Al-Qaeda used the school to train suicide bombers, but hardline Islamic parties accused the authorities of killing innocent students and organised mass protests.
The missile attack was the bloodiest incident since Pakistan deployed tens of thousands of troops along the porous border with Afghanistan to hunt down Al-Qaeda militants fleeing the US invasion in late 2001.
The Pakistani military said the Bajaur madrassa was frequently visited by Al-Qaeda number two, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, but that he was not there at the time of the airstrike. It denied the United States was involved in the attack.
Pakistan’s lawless northwestern tribal areas became a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who fled Afghanistan after US-led forces ousted the ultra-Islamic Taliban regime five years ago.