PESHAWAR, Nov 8: At least 40 soldiers were killed and 20 others wounded when a suicide bomber struck a military base in Dargai, 100kms north of here, on Wednesday morning, officials said.
The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) put the death toll at 42.
Military and security officials told Dawn that the suicide bomber, wrapped in a cloak, came running into the training area of the Punjab Regimental Centre and blew himself up, killing 38 soldiers and leaving 22 others wounded. Two of the wounded died later at the Combined Military Hospital in Mardan, officials said, requesting they not be named.
The incident, the deadliest attack yet on the Pakistan Army, took place at around 8:40am, when a group of about 130 recruits had changed their sporting kits and were preparing for the parade, the officials said, quoting wounded soldiers.
"The bomber shouted Allah-O-Akbar before detonating the explosives," said one official.
Not much is left of the suicide bomber as investigators rummaged through piles of bodies and human remains, he said.
"What is left of the bomber is his lower limbs, a hand, bits of flesh and hair. There was no torso," he said.
Experts from the NWFP special branch had been summoned to Dargai to help prepare an identikit of the suicide bomber from description provided by the wounded soldiers who saw him before he blew himself up, a senior security official said.
"This was a guy with a short beard, wearing a chador," said Khalid Mehmood, an 18-year-old student, who was passing by and was apparently wounded by a shrapnel.
A shopkeeper just across the parade ground said he was busy working when he heard a big explosion.
"Amidst the rising dust I saw bodies lying on the ground and wounded soldiers, limbs, shoes. It was horrible," said Ghulam Younas, the shopkeeper, while describing the scene soon after the bombing.
The parade ground is situated on the main road linking Peshawar and Mardan with northern districts of the NWFP.
Dargai is a settled district but falls in Malakand which is a Provincially Administered Tribal Area.
An unidentified caller told a local journalist that `Pakistani Taliban’ had carried out the attack to avenge the attack on a seminary at Bajaur.
Officials seem inclined to admit that the suicide bombing had a direct link with the air strike in Damadola.
The caller was referring to the air strike the Pakistan Army said it had carried out on Oct 30 on the Bajaur seminary that it believed was being used to train militants. The strike had killed 82 people.
The caller said the suicide bombing had been carried out by a group led by a hitherto unknown figure Abu Kalim Muhammad Ansari and claimed that it had another 274 volunteers to sacrifice their lives.
Security officials said they had no information about the identity of Ansari and the group he was heading.
"No idea who Ansari is," said one official. "They seem to be new to the business (of suicide bombing)," said another official associated with counter-terrorism measures.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, who works for the BBC Pushto Service and heads the local office of an English newspaper, said the caller spoke in Pushto with Malakand accent.
"He was emotional and a bit breathless," Mr Yusufzai told Dawn. He did not say how and from where the call had been made.
But one official said the call had originated from Dargai and had been made from a cellphone. Investigators were working on the lead, he said.
But investigators said they were focusing on an `accomplice’ of the suicide bomber holed up in a sugarcane field in a village, six kilometres from the scene of the bombing.
The suspected accomplice, said to be of medium built, in his mid-twenties and with a short beard, was given a chase by locals after they found him behaving suspiciously close to the scene of the blast, military and security officials said.
Locals fired at the suspect when he pulled out a hand-grenade and threatened to hurl it at them before disappearing in the fields in Khattko Sha village.
"He ran through the bazaar, tried to sneak into a cluster of houses before disappearing into the sugarcane fields," said an official.
"He spoke Pushto when he threatened the fast-approaching locals with a hand-grenade but did not appear to be local," he said.
About 400 soldiers from the Pakistan Army, Levy, Frontier Constabulary and locals have thrown a cordon around thickly-grown sugarcane fields, stretching over an area of three square kilometres.
Army's tracking dogs were also pressed into action to seek out the suspect, while helicopters, brought in to fly the dead and the wounded, were also used to hover over the fields and locate the suspect, the official said.
The search, however, was called off as evening set in and will begin at first light on Thursday morning. The target area has been lit up using vehicles and searchlights in addition to illuminating flares that are being shot into the air to pre-empt any attempt by the suspect to sneak out, the official said.
While there has been some scepticism that the suspect might already have slipped through the dragnet, security officials said they were sure he was still holed up inside the field.
"It's a fifty-fifty chance but we are keeping our fingers crossed", one of the officials said.
AFP adds: Military spokesman Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan condemned the bombing and described it as a terrorist attack. He warned the death toll could rise.
“We strongly suspect the attack on the army centre was done by the people trained in Bajaur in the madressah run by Al Qaeda facilitators Maulvi Liaqat and Maulvi Faqir,” he said.