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Suicide Attack at Army Base in Pakistan Kills 40

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Pakistan there's mounting concern that fighting between government security forces and Islamist militants has turned a dangerous corner. Yesterday, a suicide bombing on an army base in Dargai in the northwest of the country killed 42 soldiers. It's the deadliest terror attack on record against Pakistan's military and government officials fear it may mark the beginning of a new phase of terrorism in Pakistan.

From Islamabad, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY: Eye witnesses say new army recruits were in the middle of morning exercises when a young man wrapped in a cloak ran up to them, shouted (speaking foreign language), God is greatest, and then blew himself up. Several dozen soldiers were killed instantly. Many more were wounded. Pakistan's minister of state Ishaq Khakwani immediately condemned the attack.

Mr. ISHAQ KHAKWANI (Minister of State, Pakistan): (Through translator) The writ of the Pakistani government has been challenged. They were innocent recruits under training. People send their children here to get jobs and improve their financial situation. But these people, these suicide bombers, they attach bombs and blow themselves up. Is this what Muslims do now? Kill each other with bombs like people have been killing each other in Iraq and Iran with bombs?

KELLY: Yesterday's attack was remarkable both for the technique - suicide bombing is rare in Pakistan - and the target. Retired army Lieutenant General Hamid Gul says, up to now, terror attacks in Pakistan have been directed at individuals, usually politicians, not ordinary soldiers.

Lieutenant General HAMID GUL (Former Director of Military Intelligence, Pakistan Army Retired,): I think it's quite unprecedented. Never before in the history of Pakistan army there has been an assault on Pakistan military as an institution. And this is something to worry about.

KELLY: Indeed the newspapers here in Pakistan today are questioning whether the bombing is evidence that the war in neighboring Afghanistan is spilling over the border. It's not clear who exactly was behind the suicide attack. Suspicion has fallen on pro-Taliban extremists enraged by last week's airstrike on a madrassa, or religious school, in a nearby tribal area called Bajur.

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Pakistan says it launched that strike because the school was churning out terrorist trainees. But many Pakistanis aren't buying that explanation. Among them, Monzir Shiyd Abasi(ph). He runs a small hotel called the Pindihazara(ph) near Islamabad in Rawalpindi.

Mr. MONZIR SHIYD ABASI (Manager, Pindihazara Hotel, Rawalpindi, Pakistan): (Through translator) It was very bad thing which has happened in that area. The government should not have attacked that madrassa. They were all innocent people. They were not terrorists.

KELLY: In his hotel restaurant, where men sit sipping tea and nibbling sweets, Abasi lays out the view that's prevalent here, that the Bajur attack was the work of a U.S. spy plane, not Pakistani helicopters, and that the victims were mostly children. Pakistan and the U.S. have denied that. What is beyond dispute is that the Bajur strike killed at least 80 people and has sparked anti-government protests across Pakistan.

Hafiz Khan(ph), who owns a bathroom supply store a few doors down from Abasi's hotel in Rawalpindi, says he too suspects the U.S. was involved.

Mr. HAFIZ KHAN (Business Owner, Rawalpindi, Pakistan): I am a civilized human being. I am as much against terrorism of any sort as Bush or any other American. Okay? But a lot of things are - what I'm really very concerned about is the American attitude. It's typical going back to (unintelligible). You are either with us or you are against us. What kind of a statement is this? And it is not going down very well with Pakistani people. They're beginning to resent it.

KELLY: Pakistan's National Assembly has scheduled a session tomorrow to debate the Bajur strike. Yesterday's suicide bombing in Dargai adds plenty of new questions to the mix, such as whether and how the two strikes are linked and how Pakistan can best control the unrest in its volatile tribal regions.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.