A double Taliban suicide attack Friday that killed 66 paramilitary police recruits and 14 other people represented the deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan since the killing of Osama bin Laden. It sent a strong signal that militants mean to fight on and to try to avenge the al-Qaida leader.
The attack came as both the Pakistani and Afghan wings of the Taliban have been carrying out attacks to prove they remain a potent force and bolster their profiles in case peace talks prevail in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Afghan officials have said they hope the Afghan Taliban will use bin Laden's death as an opportunity to break their link with al-Qaida — an alliance the U.S. says must be severed if the insurgents want peace in Afghanistan. But Afghan officials and Pakistani experts say any severing of ties would not happen anytime soon, if at all.
"The Taliban want to prove that bin Laden's killing did not really affect them," said Rahimullah Yusafzai, a Taliban expert in the Pakistani city of Peshawar who has interviewed their reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"I don't think anybody is talking peace at this stage," Yusafzai said. "Everybody is wanting to score something on the ground. I think the spring fighting, the summer fighting will continue and it will be worse than last year."
The Pakistani Taliban, close allies of al-Qaida, are fighting to bring down the nuclear-armed state and impose their vision of Islamist rule. They launched their war in earnest in 2007, after security forces cleared militant gunmen from a radical mosque in the capital, killing about 100 people.
"We have done this to avenge the Abbottabad incident," Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told The Associated Press in a phone call.
However, The New York Times reported that senior police officials doubted the attack was actually carried out by the Pakistan Taliban, or that it was in revenge for bin Laden’s death.
Instead, they told the paper, the attack was most likely the work of a splinter group of the Taliban, headed by Umar Khalid, that is fighting the Pakistani Army in the nearby mountainous region of Mohmand.
The bombers blew themselves up at the main gate of the facility for the Frontier Constabulary, a poorly equipped but front-line force in the battle against al-Qaida and groups like the Pakistani Taliban close to the Afghan border. Like other branches of Pakistan security forces, it has received U.S. funding.
At least 80 people died in the attack, while around 120 were wounded, police officer Liaqat Ali Khan said. Sixty-six of the dead were recruits, Khan said.
The scene of the blast was littered with shards of glass mixed with blood and human flesh. The explosions destroyed at least 10 vans the recruits were boarding to go home for a break at the end of a recent training session.
"I was sitting in a van waiting for my colleagues. We were in plainclothes and we were happy we were going to see our families," Ahmad Ali, a wounded paramilitary policeman, told AFP by telephone from a hospital.
"I heard someone shouting 'Allahu Akbar' [Arabic for 'God is great'] and then I heard a huge blast. I was hit by something in my back shoulder. In the meantime I heard another blast and I jumped out of the van. I felt that I was injured and bleeding."
"As we were sitting in the buses there was a small blast. Within moments there was a second, big blast. I fell on the road and became unconscious," added soldier Shafeeq-ur-Rehman, whose leg was wounded in the blast.
As he spoke from a bed at Lady Reading hospital in the city of Peshawar, tearful people brought in dead and wounded relatives to the facility that has treated thousands of victims of the struggle between the army and militant groups.
"Why are we being killed? Whose war is this? What is our sin," asked an elderly man with a gray beard as the body of his teenage son was carried in on a stretcher.
It was the first major militant attack in Pakistan since bin Laden's death in a May 2 U.S. raid in the city of Abbottabad, and one of the deadliest to hit the country ever.
Militants had pledged to avenge the killing and launch reprisal strikes in Pakistan.
Ahsan, the Taliban spokesman, suggested the attack was aimed as punishment against Pakistani authorities for failing to stop the unilateral U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, something that has sparked popular nationalist anger.
"Also, the Pakistani army has failed to protect its land," he said.
The explosive vests were packed with ball bearings and nails, police said.
A vegetable vendor at the site said some recruits were seated in white minivans and others were loading luggage atop the vehicles.
"There was a big blast," he said. "I saw smoke, blood and body pieces all around."
Police official Nisar Khan said a suicide bomber in his late teens or early 20s set off one of the blasts.
"The first blast occurred in the middle of the road, and after that there was a huge blast that was more powerful than the first," said Abdul Wahid, a 25-year-old recruit whose legs were wounded in the blasts.
He said he was knocked to the ground by the force of the explosions.
"After falling, I just started crawling and dragging myself to a safer place ... along the wall of a roadside shop," he said.
Strained U.S.-Pakistan relations
The Sept. 11 mastermind and at least four others were killed by U.S. Navy SEALs who raided bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, a garrison city not far from the capital. Bin Laden is believed to have lived in the large house for up to six years.
Pakistan has long used militants as proxies to oppose the influence of it s old rival India, and is widely believed to be helping some factions even while battling others.
It has rejected as absurd suggestions its security agencies might have known where bin Laden was hiding.
Pakistani officials have denied knowing bin Laden was there but have criticized the American raid ordered by President Barack Obama as a violation of their country's sovereignty. To counter allegations it had harbored bin Laden, they have pointed out that tens of thousands of their own citizens have died in suicide and other attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamabad became an ally of the U.S. in taking on Islamist extremists.
Many of the attacks in Pakistan have targeted security forces, but government buildings, religious minorities, public places and Western targets have also been often hit.
The chances of greater security cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan appear to have been dented by the raid to get bin Laden.
The chairman of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff committee, General Khalid Shameem Wynne, has canceled a five-day visit to the United States beginning on May 22.
"He called his U.S. counterpart ... and informed him that the visit could not be undertaken under existing circumstances," a military official told Reuters.
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for suspending aid to Pakistan because of doubts about its commitment in going after violent Islamists.
But Obama's administration has stressed the importance of maintaining cooperation with Pakistan in the interests of battling militancy and bringing stability to neighboring Afghanistan.