BANNU, Pakistan (AP) — A bomb ripped through a vehicle carrying security forces inside a Pakistani army compound in the country's volatile northwestern region Sunday, killing 20 people, most of them paramilitary troops, security officials said.
The enormous blast was a heavy blow for the Pakistani military which has been fighting a stubborn insurgency in the country's northwest. Bombs and shootings have killed thousands of security forces and left thousands more wounded and maimed.
The vehicle was hired by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said police official Inyat Ali Khan from the Bannu region where the explosion occurred. It was part of a convoy that was about to leave the military base in the town of Bannu and drive west to the North Waziristan tribal area, he said.
The convoy was part of a regular Sunday morning troop rotation going into North Waziristan, said a military source. He said the bulk of the casualties were from the Frontier Corps because the bomb was planted in a vehicle hired by the paramilitary force to transport their personnel, but he could not confirm whether any civilians were killed.
The explosion killed 20 people, said the military official. Another military official confirmed the death toll. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. At least 30 people were also wounded, many of them critically, said the officials, so the death toll could rise.
The explosion was heard and felt across the town of Bannu.
On resident who lives close to the military cantonment said he heard a deafening explosion, and his house shook.
"I rushed out of my home and saw black thick smoke billowing out of the cantonment's Razmak gate area," said Sajjad Khan. He said troops quickly cordoned off the area and ordered residents to go back inside their homes.
North Waziristan is considered a safe haven for al-Qaida linked militants. Pakistani troop convoys often are hit by roadside bombs. Last December, four Pakistani troops were killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden car into a checkpoint outside an army camp in North Waziristan. But blasts inside a compound are rare.
The Pakistani military has been fighting for years against militants in the tribal areas who want to overthrow the government and establish a hard-line Islamic state across Pakistan. The militants view the army and other military forces as carrying out an American agenda in the tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and are also seen as a refuge for insurgents in that country.
But many Pakistanis resent fighting fellow Muslims and have tired of the long war. Many see it as having been foisted upon them by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected last May in part by promising to end the fighting through a negotiated settlement instead of through military operations. But so far the Pakistani Taliban has shown little desire to negotiate with the government.
The militant group ruled out peace talks with the government after an American drone killed the leader of the organization, Hakimullah Mehsud, on Nov. 1 although even before that many analysts had little faith the negotiations would be successful. Previous peace talks have quickly fallen apart, and many analysts say such negotiations are generally used by the militants to regroup for future fighting.
The militants accused Pakistan of helping the U.S. target Mehsud. Islamabad vehemently denied the allegation and accused Washington of sabotaging its attempt to strike a deal with the Taliban to end years of violence.
The militant group vowed to step up its attacks against the government and the military, and Mehsud's replacement, Mullah Fazlullah, is not seen as a supporter of peace talks.
Fazlullah was the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest Swat Valley and fled to Afghanistan after the army launched an offensive there in 2009. He is known as a particularly ruthless militant who planned the attempted assassination of teenage activist Malala Yousafzai in 2012.
Santana reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.