Pakistan vowed to step up its fight against terrorism Friday after a suicide attacker penetrated a high-security military base and detonated an explosive-laden vehicle, killing 16 soldiers from an elite counterterrorism task force.
Authorities did not speculate on who was behind the attack, but past incidents have been blamed on Islamic militants.
Twenty-nine soldiers also were wounded late Thursday at Ghazi Tarbela base — about 60 miles south of the capital, Islamabad — the headquarters of the quick-reaction counterterrorism commandos. The attack came the day visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte met with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and praised his role in the fight on terror.
Musharraf ordered a thorough investigation into how the bomber breached security at the facility and rammed his vehicle into a canteen where soldiers were eating, according to a statement that ran on the state-run news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan.
“The government will fight the menace of terrorism, extremism and militancy in all its forms and manifestations,” Musharraf said.
Mostly Muslim Pakistan has seen scores of attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S. and the war on terrorism. Hundreds of suspected militants have also been killed or detained.
The slain soldiers belonged to the army’s Karar commando group, which has participated in operations against militants in various parts of the country, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their job.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, who on Thursday had suggested the blast may have been accidentally triggered by a gas canister, confirmed Friday a suicide attacker was suspected.
Force participated in Red Mosque raid
The force took part in the army raid against pro-Taliban militants in Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July, which left more than 100 dead and triggered a spate of reprisals against security forces, Geo TV network reported.
Pakistan is under growing U.S. pressure to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in its border regions. It reported Wednesday it had killed about 40 militants in the North Waziristan tribal region.
In fighting Thursday near Razmak, a town in South Waziristan, army forces repelled repeated militant attacks, and tribesmen informed officials that up to 50 rebels died in counter-strikes. Two soldiers were killed and eight wounded, Arshad said.
Fighting between Islamic militants and security forces has been raging across northwest Pakistan since the army assaulted the Red Mosque. Most of the combat has taken place in the rugged mountains along the Afghan border where the U.S. fears al-Qaida is regrouping.
The army says it has deployed 90,000 troops in the border region in an attempt to curtail militancy and stop guerrillas from crossing into Afghanistan to attack NATO forces.