- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SHAHI KOTO, Pakistan (AP) — Three U.S. soldiers traveling with Pakistan security force members were killed Wednesday and one wounded in a roadside bombing in northwest Pakistan that also injured dozens of schoolgirls, officials said.

The soldiers were in the region as part of a small, little-publicized U.S. mission to train members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps to better fight al Qaeda and Taliban militants, Pakistan’s army said.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment. If the deaths are confirmed by American authorities, they would represent a major victory for militants close to the Afghan border who have been hit hard in recent months by a surge in U.S. missile strikes and a major Pakistani army offensive.

The attack, which killed at least four other people and wounded 70, will draw attention to the presence of U.S. troops on Pakistan soil at a time when anti-American sentiment over perceived violations of sovereignty is running high. U.S. and Pakistani authorities rarely talk about the training program out of fear it could generate a backlash.

The blast hit a convoy close to a girls’ school celebrating its opening in the Shahi Koto area of Lower Dir district, which like much of the northwest is home to al Qaeda and Taliban militants. It was unclear where the convoy was heading.

One of the dead was a Pakistani soldier, officials said. Around 70 people were wounded, among them many schoolgirls, said an army statement and police chief Mumtaz Zarin Khan. Some officials said three schoolchildren also were among the dead.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said three Americans soldiers training the Frontier Corp were killed and one was wounded in the attack.

Lower Dir shares a border with Afghanistan and with the Swat Valley, a region the army last year retook from militant control in an offensive that included operations in Lower Dir. The army had claimed both regions were now clear of insurgents.

The bomb flattened much of the Koto Girls High School, leaving books, bags and pens strewn around.

“What was the fault of these innocent students?” said Mohammed Dawood, a resident who helped police dig the injured from the rubble.

Later, the bodies of three foreigners and two injured were flown by helicopter to Islamabad and then taken to the city’s Al-Shifa hospital, said a doctor there who asked his name not be used citing the sensitivity of the case. One of the injured had minor head wounds and the other had multiple fractures.

He said Pakistani army and intelligence officers were present and not allowing visitors into the building.

U.S. troops have been training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps since at least 2008. The corps is a major force in the northwest, but they have long been under-equipped and under-trained, making them a feeble front line against militants.

The training program was never officially announced, a sign of the sensitivity for the Pakistan’s government in allowing U.S. troops on its territory. Frontier Corps officials have said the course includes classroom and field sessions. U.S. officials have said the program is a “train-the-trainer” program, and that the Americans are not carrying out operations.

Zada reported from Shahi Koto, and Ahmad from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Chris Brummitt contributed from Islamabad.

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