A bomb blast in northwest Pakistan killed eight people Wednesday, including three U.S. soldiers and children at the opening of a school which just been rebuilt after an Islamist attack.
The U.S. troops, whom the U.S. embassy said were training paramilitary soldiers, were traveling in a convoy with local troops, journalists and officials to the opening ceremony of the girls' school when the bomb exploded. It appears to be the first time American soldiers have been killed in such an attack in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally on the frontline of the war on al-Qaeda where Islamist militants have killed around 3,000 people since July 2007.
At least 65 people, most of them schoolgirls and some journalists, were wounded in Wednesday's bombing in the district of Lower Dir, where Pakistan last year launched an assault to drive out Taliban militants advancing across the area. "Three U.S. soldiers attached to the Frontier Corps, or FC, as trainers were killed in the blast," Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.
The U.S. embassy condemned the "vicious terrorist bombing" which it said killed three Americans and wounded two others. "The Americans were U.S. military personnel in Pakistan to conduct training at the invitation of the Pakistan Frontier Corps," it added. "They were in Lower Dir to attend the inauguration ceremony of a school for girls that had recently been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance."
Pakistani officials said an FC soldier and four schoolgirls also died. "We have four dead bodies in this hospital. They are schoolgirls aged 10 to 15. We have received 65 injured, most of them are girls," said Mohammad Wakeel, chief doctor at the local Taimargara Hospital. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack and ordered an investigation into the roadside bombing in Koto village, about 10 kilometers from Taimargara, the main town in Lower Dir.
The school had been blown up in January 2009 and rebuilt with the help of a foreign aid organisation, believed by police to have been the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. "There was a formal inauguration ceremony of the school. The bomb was buried on the roadside close to the school. There were nine rooms in the school, three rooms were completely destroyed," said police official Yaqub Khan.
Western groups have been working with the Pakistani government to promote girls' education in parts of the northwest, where Taliban-linked militants opposed to co-education have destroyed hundreds of schools. Pakistan carried out a major offensive to crush a Taliban insurgency last year in Lower Dir and the neighboring districts of Swat and Buner.
USAID last week published a report warning that a project intended to improve governance in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, which borders Lower Dir, had achieved little over the last three years. U.S. officials call Pakistan's tribal belt the most dangerous place on Earth, rife with both homegrown Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters and other Islamist militant groups, which fled the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.