At least 15 soldiers from an elite commando unit were killed Thursday evening when a blast, apparently set off by a suicide bomber, tore through the dining hall of a military installation in northwestern Pakistan, military officials said.
At least 27 soldiers were wounded; six were in critical condition.
The soldiers killed belonged to a unit of Special Services Group, commonly known as commandos, of the Pakistani military. Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is also the military chief, belongs to the SSG.
The attack took place about 50 miles outside the capital, Islamabad, in the cantonment area of Tarbela Ghazi at the brigade headquarters of the Special Operation Task Force. The unit has been set up with American aid to flush out al-Qaida from the semiautonomous tribal areas straddling the border with Afghanistan.
A security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the blast was the work of a suicide bomber, adding that the bomber could have been one of the civilian workers at the brigade headquarters.
“This is a high security zone,” the official said. “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.”
Government officials would not publicly confirm that it was a suicide attack, however, and there were no immediate claims of responsibility. Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, the spokesman for the Pakistani military, said the cause of the explosion was still being investigated.
The attack on the military installation coincided with a visit to Islamabad by the U.S. deputy secretary of state, John D. Negroponte, who met Thursday with Musharraf.
Pakistan has been raked with surging violence as the military battles fighters sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, with a rising number of deadly attacks on military targets.
The attack on Thursday was the second time this month that a high-security installation had been hit, pointing to the ease with which terrorists have been able to inflict maximum damage after penetrating seemingly secure military areas.
On Sept. 4, at least 25 people were killed when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Many of the victims belonged to the country’s powerful intelligence agency, known as Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
The blast on Thursday occurred around 8 p.m., as soldiers were having dinner in the mess hall, the military spokesman said.
Afterward, security officials cordoned off the area and the wounded were ferried to the military hospital in nearby Attock and Rawalpindi.
A kind of rapid reaction force, the Special Operation Task Force has conducted raids in the restive South and North Waziristan tribal region, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants are based.
The unit’s operations have included the late 2003 operation in a border village in South Waziristan to track down Abu Abdur Rehman Khidr al Canidi, whom intelligence officials believed was a key Qaida operative.