HARIPUR, Sept 13: At least 15 soldiers were killed and 18 others wounded, some of them seriously, in a suicide attack on an anti-terrorist special operation unit in a high security zone here on Thursday evening, a senior security official told Dawn in Peshawar.

“It was a suicide attack,” the official confirmed, adding the bomber could have been one of the civilian workers at the brigade headquarters of Special Operation Task Force (SOTF).

“This is a high security zone. Obviously, this was someone who was known and familiar to the soldiers there and it could be one of the civilians working at the base,” the official said.

He said that investigation teams had reached the place located near Pakistan’s biggest hydel power generating units of Tarbela in the Ghazi sub-district of Haripur.

Military spokesman Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad, who put the death toll at 15, declined to say what caused the explosion. “It could be anything. We have not made any determination so far,” he told Dawn on phone from Rawalpindi.

A security official, however, said the figure could rise as some of the wounded soldiers were in critical condition.

Witnesses said that the wounded had been taken to military hospitals in Attock, Rawalpindi and Kamra.

The official said the bomber struck just when Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and soldiers had assembled for dinner in the mess.

“A detailed report may take some time. Investigators are there. They will examine the place, take pictures, collect evidence and interview survivors to come up with a complete picture; and this will take time,” the official said.

The SOTF, a unit of the Pakistan Army’s elite Special Services Group (SSG), had been set up with American aid to flush out Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s lawless and rugged tribal regions straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Based at the old PFL Nishat Colony of Tarbela, the SOTF, a kind of Quick Reaction Force, had conducted raids in the South and North Waziristan tribal region.

This included the late 2003 operation in a border village in South Waziristan to take out Abu Abdur Rehman Khidr Al Canidi believed by intelligence to be a key Al Qaeda operative.

The last operation of SOTF was in Khat Killay, near the regional headquarters of North Waziristan, in March last year.

It is not known to have carried out any other operation in the tribal region since then, though one report suggested that the SSG’s Zarrar unit participated in the Lal Masjid operation in July.

The latest attack in a high security area follows twin suicide attacks in the garrison city of Rawalpindi early this month, including the suicide bombing in

a bus carrying employees of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence.

The bombings targeting security and intelligence personnel indicated that militants were able to penetrate deep inside sensitive zones, raising serious security questions, an analyst said.

The explosion took place at around 8pm. The explosion was so severe that it was heard several kilometres from the place.

The military personnel sealed the area soon after the explosion and even the local police was kept at a certain area, police sources said.