TIMERGARA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Taliban claimed responsibility for a bomb on Wednesday that killed three U.S. Special Operations soldiers near a girls’ school in northwest Pakistan and threatened more attacks on Americans.
In scenes that have become familiar in the struggle between Taliban insurgents and the state, a young girl trapped below the stones of a collapsed wall cried out for help after the blast.
Three children and a Pakistani soldier were also killed and 45 people, including 40 schoolgirls, were wounded in the attack near Swat Valley, where the government mounted a crackdown nearly a year ago that it said had cleared out Taliban militants.
“We will continue such attacks on Americans,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told Reuters by telephone.
U.S. defense officials in Washington described the slain soldiers as Special Operations troops attached to the U.S. training mission for Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, responsible for security in areas near the Afghan border seen as part of a global militant hub.
Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded in the attack and evacuated to Islamabad for treatment.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, strongly condemned the attack, calling it a “great tragedy.”
The blast, triggered by a remote-controlled device, was a grim reminder of the resilience of Taliban militants determined to topple the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, a deeply unpopular pro-American leader.
“It was like Doomsday. The roof of the school fell on my child. Dead bodies of soldiers were lying there,” said Ghafur Ullah, the father of a schoolgirl wounded in the blast.
Pakistan’s Taliban have bombed markets, schools and military and police facilities despite major government security offensives that have destroyed some of their bases and U.S. drone aircraft strikes that have killed some of their leaders.
“Their intelligence network is pretty good in terms of being able to know that Americans were attending the ceremony,” said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for Middle East and South Asia at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.
The soldiers were on the way to attend the opening ceremony of a girls’ school that had recently been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance when the bomb exploded.
“It is very revealing that they were on their way to the inauguration of a school. That’s what Americans do,” Holbrooke said. “Ever since I have joined the Foreign Service, we have had people who have given their lives in a cause that we believe in.”
Militants have previously attacked U.S. diplomats and facilities in Pakistan. Unlike in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. combat troops are not stationed in Pakistan.
“This attack demonstrates the terrorists’ lack of respect for life, and their willingness to use violence against women and children as a means for advancing their malign vision,” said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman of U.S. Central Command in Florida.
The appearance of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, in a farewell video with the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan in December, suggests the group poses an increasingly complex threat to Pakistan.
The United States is leaning heavily on long-time ally Pakistan to help it stabilize Afghanistan, a top foreign policy priority for President Barack Obama.
It wants Islamabad to eliminate al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban militants who cross the border to attack Western troops in Afghanistan.
But nuclear-armed Pakistan is focused on fighting home-grown Taliban who have blown up dozens of girls’ schools and publicly flogged and executed those deemed immoral by an austere interpretation of Islamic rule they are bent on imposing.
The possibility that some of his aides will be prosecuted under revived corruption charges and growing public frustration with a sluggish economy and chronic power cuts have also piled pressure on Zardari.
Zardari cannot afford to be seen as giving in to U.S. pressure to fight militants at a time when anti-American feelings run high in Pakistan. While Pakistanis object to bombings and the Taliban’s view on Islam, many are suspicious of U.S. intentions.
Pakistani media suggest employees of the U.S. security company formerly called Blackwater are carrying out clandestine activities harmful to the country.
“It’s revenge for the bomb blasts carried out by Blackwater in Pakistan,” Taliban spokesman Tariq said of Wednesday’s blast.
Holbrooke rejected the Taliban’s claims of Blackwater involvement. “They’re adept at propaganda and disinformation,” he said of the Taliban’s statements.
U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan have intensified since the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan, but analysts say they are unlikely to pose a long-term danger to the Taliban, who seem to carry out suicide bombings at will.
The death toll from drone attacks Tuesday night — the heaviest ever in terms of the number of missiles fired — has risen to 31, security officials said.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Kamran Haider in Islamabad and Sue Pleming and Adam Entous in Washington; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Eric Walsh)
For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here