SHABQADAR, Pakistan – A pair of suicide bombers attacked recruits leaving a paramilitary training center in Pakistan on Friday, killing 80 people in an especially deadly strike that the Pakistani Taliban claimed it carried out to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The blasts in the northwest were a reminder of the savagery of al-Qaida-linked militants in Pakistan. They occurred even as the country faces international suspicion that elements within its security forces may have been harboring bin Laden, who was killed in a raid in Abbottabad, about a three hours’ drive from the scene of the bombing.
“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.
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 allied Islamist groups like the Pakistani Taliban close to the Afghan border. Like other branches of Pakistan security forces, it has received U.S. funding.
Sixty-six of the dead were recruits, said police officer Liaqat Ali Khan.
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.
Khan said at least 80 people died in the attack, while around 120 were wounded.
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, 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.
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.
Pakistani officials have denied knowing he 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.