7 die in Pakistan roadside blast

3 Americans training local forces killed

By Sherin Zada and Chris Brummitt
Associated Press / February 4, 2010

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SHAHI KOTO, Pakistan - The deaths of three American special operations soldiers in a roadside bombing in northwest Pakistan yesterday drew unwanted attention to a US program training local forces to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda - a little-publicized mission because of opposition here to American boots on Pakistani soil.

The killings were the first known US military fatalities in nearly three years in Pakistan’s Afghan border region, where militants are being pummeled by US 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 school and a Pakistani paramilitary soldier traveling with the Americans. Two more US 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 US special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said it did not appear the Americans were 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 called it a suicide attack.

Witnesses said the vehicle carrying the Americans took the brunt 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 in 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, the Pakistan Army and the US 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 US 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, the Pakistanis and the Americans have not 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 unpopular among many Pakistanis, even those who recognize that fighting militants is in their country’s interest.

Most Pakistanis interviewed yesterday had no idea US soldiers were stationed in the northwest. Some were supportive, but others said it reinforced their perception that the country’s government was not telling them the truth.

An opinion poll by the International Republican Institute conducted in July and August indicated that 80 percent of Pakistanis believe 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.

The Frontier Corps training program was never officially disclosed, but Pakistan and US officials have said that it began in 2008 and that US 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. US 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 US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the attack 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. The embassy said the school had been renovated with US humanitarian assistance.