- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2011

SHABQADAR, Pakistan — Two suicide bombers attacked paramilitary police recruits heading home after months of training in this country’s northwest, killing 80 people Friday in what the Pakistani Taliban called vengeance for the U.S. slaying of Osama bin Laden.

The militants said they hit the recruits out of anger at Pakistan’s armed forces for failing to stop the U.S. incursion that killed bin Laden, and promised more attacks would follow.

The attacks came as Pakistan, an uneasy U.S. ally since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, battled suspicion that elements in its security forces harbored bin Laden. Military leaders told lawmakers Friday that Pakistan was instrumental in diminishing al Qaeda’s infrastructure, but admitted negligence in tracking the Sept. 11 mastermind, who had lived in the northwest garrison city of Abbottabad for years before dying in the May 2 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs.

The suicide bombings Friday occurred roughly three hours drive away in Shabqadar, at the main gate of the facility for the Frontier Constabulary. The paramilitary police unit is a poorly equipped but front-line force in the battle against al Qaeda and allied Islamist groups operating along the Afghan border. Like other branches of Pakistan’s security forces, it has received U.S. funding to try to sharpen its skills.

“We have done this to avenge the Abbottabad incident,” Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told The Associated Press in a phone call. “The Pakistani army has failed to protect its land.”

He warned that the group was also planning attacks on Americans living in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban are a loose collection of insurgent groups who carry out attacks on Pakistani territory.

However, a police official cast doubt on the claim. Liaqat Ali Khan said militants fighting security forces in the nearby Mohmand tribal region were the primary suspects.

At least 80 people were killed, including 66 recruits, and around 120 people were wounded, Khan said. The blasts shattered the air as some 900 young men were leaving the center after spending six months training there. They were in high spirits and looking forward to seeing their families, for which some had brought gifts, a survivor said.

“We were heading toward a van when the first blast took place and we fell on the ground and then there was another blast,” said 21-year-old Rehmanullah Khan. “We enjoyed our time together, all the good and bad weather, and I cannot forget the cries of my friends before they died.”

The scene was littered with shards of glass mixed with blood and flesh. The explosions destroyed at least 10 vans.

It was the first major militant attack in Pakistan since bin Laden’s death on May 2, and the deadliest this year. Following bin Laden’s killing, militants had pledged to avenge the killing and launch reprisal strikes in Pakistan.

The Pakistani Taliban is an al Qaeda-linked umbrella group of militant organizations that is distinct from, but tied to, the Afghan Taliban. While both groups share a hatred for America, the Pakistani Taliban have also attacked the Pakistani state, blaming it for keeping an alliance with Washington.

The Pakistani Taliban often try to tap into popular sentiments in the country, where anti-Americanism is often stronger than feelings against Islamist militants despite attacks killing an untold number of civilians.

The White House said it is continuing in a state of high vigilance after bin Laden’s death.

“We take very seriously the fact that while al Qaeda is weakened, it is not dead and it is obviously entirely possible, even likely, that terrorists whether organized or lone wolves, might try to respond with revenge attacks of some kind,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Pakistani officials have tread cautiously since the bin Laden raid amid public fury and disbelief. They have said that bin Laden’s death was justice, but that they were not informed in advance of a raid they describe as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

In a closed-door session with Parliament on Friday, Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, admitted “negligence” on the part of authorities in failing to find bin Laden, but also said his staff had long cooperated with the U.S. to try to destroy al Qaeda by killing or catching many of bin Laden’s allies, according to Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Bin Laden was like a “dead person despite being alive,” Awan quoted the intelligence chief as saying.

Pasha rarely talks to media on the record. Lawmakers said after the session that he’d indicated he’d be willing to resign over the matter, but that no one demanded he do so.

According to Awan, an air force official said the military learned that “American planes were loaded with bombs” were in the air in Afghanistan, ready to retaliate in case Pakistani planes tried to intercept the U.S. helicopters. The U.S. has said it sent extra helicopters into Pakistani airspace to provide backup in case the Navy SEALs had to fight their way out of the country.

Those at the briefing included Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The military leaders assured lawmakers that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals are safe and promised to improve the country’s air defenses, Awan said.

Despite their displeasure with Pakistan, which many American officials believe maintains links to Afghan militants, the U.S. is likely to do its best to salvage the relationship simply because it needs Islamabad’s cooperation to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan.

The U.S. and NATO, for instance, rely heavily on Pakistani land routes to supply their troops.

On Friday, some two dozen vehicles, including 15 tankers carrying fuel for NATO in Afghanistan, were destroyed when a blast ripped through a parking lot in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, government official Tahir Khan said.

Also Friday, Pakistani intelligence officials said a U.S. missile strike killed three people near the Afghan border. The four missiles struck a vehicle in the Doga Madakhel village of North Waziristan tribal region. North Waziristan is home to many militants dedicated to attacking Western troops in Afghanistan.

The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media. They did not know the identities of the dead.

Toosi reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan, Munir Ahmed, and Deb Riechmann in Islamabad, Babar Dogar in Lahore and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.