SHAHI KOTO, Pakistan — The deaths of three American special operations soldiers in a roadside bombing in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday drew unwanted attention to a U.S. program of training local forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida — a little-publicized mission because of opposition here to American boots on Pakistani soil.
The killings were the first known U.S. military fatalities in nearly three years in Pakistan's Afghan border region, where militants are being pummeled by U.S. missile strikes and struggling to regroup following the loss of a key stronghold in a recent Pakistani army offensive.
The blast also killed three girls at a nearby school and a Pakistani paramilitary soldier traveling with the Americans. Two more U.S. soldiers were wounded, along with about 100 other people, mostly students at the school. Several were left trapped, bloodied and screaming in the rubble.
The U.S. special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said it did not appear the Americans were directly targeted by the blast, which he said was caused by roadside bomb. Local officials said the device was detonated by remote control, but at least one police officer said it was a suicide attack.
Brunt of blast
Witnesses said the vehicle carrying the Americans took most of the explosion as their five-car convoy traveled along the road in Lower Dir, indicating it may in fact have been directed at the Americans. That would raise the specter of a militant informant close to the training mission.
Lower Dir is a base for militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani army claimed to have retaken the area from the militants last June in a widely praised offensive that also cleared the insurgents from the nearby Swat Valley.
The soldiers were part of a small group of American soldiers training members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, Pakistan's army and the U.S. Embassy said. The mission is trying to strengthen the ill-equipped and poorly trained outfit's ability to fight militants.
Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan does not allow U.S. combat troops on its territory, making training local security forces an important part of ensuring that militants are not able to use the area as a sanctuary from which to attack American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
While not a secret, neither the Pakistanis or the Americans have talked much about the program because of the political sensitivity in Pakistan of accepting American assistance. While the government in Islamabad is closely allied with Washington, America is deeply unpopular among many Pakistanis, even those who recognize that fighting militants is in their country's interest.
'Mystery to us'
Most Pakistanis interviewed Wednesday had no idea U.S. soldiers were stationed in the northwest. Some were supportive, but others said it reinforced their perception that the country's government was not telling the truth to them.
"It is a mystery to us who runs this country," said Siraj Ahmed, a 32-year-old in the city of Karachi. "I am simply not able to understand how our rulers are willing to impose a foreign agenda on us."
An opinion poll by the International Republican Institute conducted last July and August found that 80 percent of Pakistanis believed the country should not cooperate with America in the war on terror. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.41 percentage points.
In recent months, sections of Pakistan's media have been awash with conspiracy theories about the presence of U.S. troops or military contractors in the country, adding to government and military unease about being associated with Americans.
Special forces mission
The Corps training program was never officially announced, but Pakistan and U.S. officials have said it began in 2008 and that U.S. special forces were carrying it out. Officials then said it involved just 32 Americans. There have been no announcements saying it has grown in size.
Corps officials have said the course includes classroom and field sessions. U.S. officials have said that the program is a "train-the-trainer" program and that the Americans are not carrying out operations, contrasting it with much larger missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the incident was still under review, said at least one of the three American soldiers was a member of a unit designed to help local authorities publicize positive news — in this case, apparently, the opening of a girls school, which the embassy said had been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance.
'What Americans do'
Holbrooke told reporters in Washington that the U.S. had not tried to conceal the military trainers.
"There is nothing secret about their presence there," said Holbrooke, who has visited the country at least four times and has rarely, if ever, directly mentioned the existence of the training program in public. "It is very revealing that they were on their to the inauguration of a school, it was a girls school," he said. "This is what Americans do."
In Swat last year, a member of the Frontier Corps taking part in the anti-militant offensive told an Associated Press reporter that he had been trained by the Americans, but that he — like all those who take part in the course — was sworn to secrecy about it.
The Pakistani government condemned Wednesday's attack in a statement that referred to the Americans only as U.S. nationals.
The soldiers were driving to attend the inauguration of the girl's school, and Pakistani reporters traveling with them were covering the event. The school that was damaged in the blast was not the one where the convoy was heading.
Two local journalists in the convoy were under the impression that the soldiers, who were in civilian clothes, were American journalists because of comments from a Pakistani soldier suggesting that was the case. That could explain why initial reports of the incident on Pakistani television said the dead were foreign journalists.
Express TV reporter Amjad Ali Shah said as the convoy was about to leave from a paramilitary base, a Pakistani soldier entered the room and said to an officer, "Sir, the foreign journalists have arrived," in an apparent reference to the American contingent.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said authorities were looking into how the soldiers were presented.
The last known death of a U.S. soldier in the Pakistani border region took place on May 14, 2007, when Army Maj. Larry J. Bauguess Jr., 36, of Moravian Falls, N.C., was killed by small-arms fire in the frontier town of Teri Mengel.
Militants apparently killed Bauguess and a Pakistani soldier after a meeting intended to calm tensions between Afghan and Pakistani soldiers following a round of border fighting.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.