A suicide attack on a bus in Rawalpindi was the first that singled out workers of Pakistan’s prized nuclear labs, military analysts and prominent national newspapers said, raising new questions about the government’s ability to withstand increasingly bold assaults by the Taliban against the country’s military complex.
The attack comes as Pakistan’s army is fighting the Taliban on several fronts and is about to begin an even more ambitious campaign in the insurgents’ heartland in Waziristan.
Government officials have said that the attack hit a bus carrying workers from a nonnuclear military plant, but military analysts said they believed that was an effort to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that a vehicle connected with the nuclear program had been hit.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda have announced that their goal is to topple the government and gain control of its nuclear arsenal. Singling out nuclear workers, even though they were miles outside the weapons lab, military analysts say, carries heavy symbolism in a nation that believes its ultimate strength lies in its nuclear capability. It also suggested a worrisome level of sophistication.
“It showed that their intelligence is current,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and a military analyst. “It was a deliberate strike. They are trying to give a hint that they can strike the personnel who are working for the nuclear facilities.”
The attack killed the suicide bomber, who rammed the bus with his motorcycle, and wounded 30 workers, the Rawalpindi police said. Military analysts said the workers were from the Kahuta Research Laboratories, where weapons-grade uranium is produced. No high-level official or scientist was on board.
The lab was once run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program and one of the most successful nuclear proliferators in history.
The United States has spent almost $100 million in training Pakistani security personnel how to make the country’s nuclear warheads safe and how to store them separately from the missiles and trigger devices. But in the last year, officials in Washington have expressed growing alarm about the nation’s nuclear laboratories.
Immediately after the attack, the police said the bus, which was idling at a busy intersection when it was struck, was carrying workers returning home from the nuclear lab. But since then, government officials have said that the bus belonged to a military engineering lab in Taxila.
An official at the complex, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, denied that. And, in another indication that the wounded were employees of the nuclear program, officials at the scene had said some of them would be treated at a hospital run by the nuclear labs.
On Saturday, The Nation — a conservative English-language daily newspaper — expressed fears about the government’s ability to handle its increasing security challenges.
“The militants have now started attacking the very basis of the country’s conventional as well as nuclear defense,” the newspaper’s editorial stated. “The fact that the employees of one of the major nuclear facilities are not provided proper security is a serious comment on the working of our law enforcement apparatus.”
Police officials speaking soon after the attack said it did not necessarily suggest a serious security breach because a bus moving through congested city streets made an easy target.