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A roadside bomb attack killed at least seven people, including three Americans, in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, news agencies report. The US fatalities represent a significant victory for Taliban militants, who claimed responsibility for the attack, after months of increasing drone attacks.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) said that it had carried out the attack. A TTP spokesman accused the men of working for Blackwater International, a security contractor that changed its name to Xe in 2009 and that attracted widespread criticism over alleged excessive use of force in Iraq.
“The Americans killed were members of the Blackwater group. We know they are responsible for bomb blasts in Peshawar and other Pakistani cities,” a Taliban spokesman told Dawn. “We have warned we will take revenge and today we have avenged the deaths of innocent people.”
Initial reports identified the US dead as either aid workers or journalists. Dawn initially called them officials with the US Agency for International Development, while AFP cited an official from the paramilitary Frontier Corps calling them foreign aid workers, and sources told the Associated Press (AP) they were “part of a small, little-publicized, US mission to train members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps to better fight al-Qaida and Taliban militants.”
Three schoolchildren are reported to have been killed in the attack, which took place near the village of Koto in Hajibad in the district of Lower Dir. (Click here to see a map.) The area lies between Afghanistan and the Swat Valley, which Pakistani forces retook from the Taliban in a military campaign last year.
At least 59 people were wounded, reports Dawn, mostly students from a nearby girls’ school but also two local journalists and five fighters from the Frontier Corps. The government-backed paramilitaries had been charged with protecting the convoy, which was on its way to the inauguration ceremony of a school in the village of Kad that had been destroyed by Taliban and rebuilt by USAID.
The school building itself was also heavily damaged in the attack, for the second time in two years. AFP reports that of the nine rooms in the building, three were completely destroyed. It is one of hundreds of schools destroyed in the country’s turbulent northwest as part of a Taliban campaign against the education of girls.
Speaking to AFP, chief doctor Mohamed Wakeel at Taimargara Hospital described an emergency room full of dead and wounded, primarily children.
“We have four dead bodies. They are schoolgirls aged 10 to 15. We have received 65 injured, most of them are girls," said Wakeel, adding that three journalists were also among the injured.
The AP reports that American officials have so far declined to comment on the identities of the slain foreigners and whether they were US military personnel.
If the deaths are confirmed by American authorities, they would represent a major victory for militants close to the Afghan border who have been hit hard in recent months by a surge in U.S. missile strikes and a major Pakistani army offensive.
Previously, the Monitor reported that Pakistan suffered its worst year of terrorist violence in 2009, with 3,000 people killed, according to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. Over the course of the year, militants who were once careful to target mainly police and military increasingly began to hit civilians.
In response to this uptick in militant activity, President Barack Obama increased the number of air strikes inside Pakistan by 47 percent in the past year, the Monitor reported on Tuesday, mostly carried out by drones. That pattern appears set to continue in 2010: a strike on Tuesday was the 12th this year, meaning the number of strikes in the first four weeks of the year was equal to one-quarter of the total in 2009.