ISLAMABAD (AFP) – Pakistani officials said Friday that they suspected Al-Qaeda carried out a suicide bombing that killed 20 commandos from an elite unit tasked with hunting down Osama bin Laden’s extremist network.
The attack on a mess hall at a high-security military camp followed two days of deadly clashes in Pakistan’s lawless tribal zone along the Afghan border and coincided with a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
It targeted a special forces group to which military ruler President Pervez Musharraf still belongs and was the latest in a string of high-profile attacks on Pakistan’s army and intelligence services.
“Only Al-Qaeda is capable of carrying out such a daring attack and with such precision and planning,” a senior intelligence official said of the strike on the camp in Tarbela, about 70 kilometres (45 miles) northwest of Islamabad.
“It was a high security, well-protected area where the bomber managed to enter and blew himself up.”
He said authorities were probing whether the attack was linked to a video by bin Laden last week calling for a “caravan” of Muslim martyrs and a recent statement by his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri urging the overthrow of Musharraf.
The suicide bomber killed 20 commandos and wounded around 30, two other senior security officials said, updating the army’s toll of 15 dead. They said the bomber was on foot.
“The terrorists’ space is being curtailed by the security forces and they are trying to strike back,” chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP.
“They are killing innocent people to create fear but our resolve to rid society of extremist forces is unshakeable.”
A senior military official said the target was “the Special Operation Task Force, which has been drawn from the elite Special Services Group commandos to carry out operations against Al-Qaeda.”
Musharraf set up the unit in 2002 to hunt down Al-Qaeda militants who fled into Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001 in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The president, who is also the head of the country’s armed forces, condemned the “unfortunate incident.”
“Such cowardly acts of killing innocent people cannot be left unpunished,” he said, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan.
Pakistan has been beset by violence since troops stormed the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July. Suicide attacks have killed 270 people since then, including 31 in twin attacks on the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
In one of the Rawalpindi attacks earlier this month, a suicide bomber hit a bus transporting members of the military’s elite Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, killing 24 people.
The violence has piled pressure on Musharraf, a key US ally in the “war on terror,” as he struggles with a political crisis ahead of upcoming general and presidential elections.
Pakistani troops backed by gunships this week killed more than 70 militants in two days of heavy fighting in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where the United States says bin Laden may be hiding.
Two soldiers died and the army said on Friday that six more were missing in the Waziristan area.
Musharraf told Negroponte during a two-hour meeting here on Thursday that “Pakistan’s commitment (to tackle extremism) should never be in doubt as it was in Pakistan’s own national interest,” a foreign ministry statement said.
The government is meanwhile trying to free more than 200 soldiers who have been taken hostage in the past two weeks in northwestern Pakistan, and whom militants have threatened to start killing.