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US soldiers and girls die after Taliban blows up border school

The Pakistani Taliban yesterday claimed responsibility for killing three US soldiers after detonating a roadside bomb outside a girls' school in a remote region of the northwest near the Afghanistan border.

They were the first American troops to be killed in the field in Pakistan and the attack will likely call hostile attention to America’s military presence.

Three teenage schoolgirls were also killed, and up to 70 were injured in the blast, which devastated the Koto Girls High School in Lower Dir. Television images showed the scattered remains of books and bags, charred cars and broken masonry.

There was a panicked scramble through the debris in search of survivors, and witnesses described the cries for help of a young girl trapped below the stones of a collapsed wall.

“What was the fault of these innocent students?” asked resident Mohammed Dawood.

A guard at the school said that the death toll would have been much worse had the bomb exploded a few minutes later, because most of the girls were playing in the yard and had not yet returned to the classrooms that later collapsed in the blast.

The three Americans killed yesterday were military trainers, in the country as part of a unit training the Pakistani Frontier Corps, who are responsible for security in the volatile areas near the Afghan border.

Their deaths will be a major propaganda coup for the Taliban. Morale among the militants has taken a battering after a sweeping military offensive by the Pakistani army ousted them from their strongholds of Swat and South Waziristan.

The militants suffer almost daily US drone attacks — one of which killed leader Baitullah Mehsud last summer.

Just last month, there was also the reported demise — which has been contested by the militants — of his successor Hakimullah Mehsud.

After claiming responsibility for yesterday's bomb, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told Reuters: “We will continue such attacks on Americans.”

Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, no US soldiers are formally stationed in Pakistan. Two US Marines died when the the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad where they were staying was bombed in 2008.

But yesterday's attack appeared to have deliberately targeted the Americans.

It will turn a spotlight on the US military presence in Pakistan, and put pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari, widely criticised at home for being too much in Washington's pocket.

In recent months, the Pakistani Press and sections of the political opposition have waged a fierce propaganda campaign, alleging that private security contractors roam with impunity and even wild claims that the US is poised to snatch Pakistan's much-vaunted nuclear weapons.

The Frontier Corp training programme was never officially announced when it began in 2008, apparently for fear of provoking a backlash against Mr Zardari's government.

But yesterday Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Pakistan, said America had not tried to hide the training mission. “There is nothing secret about their presence there,”he told reporters in Washington.

The US trainers were in a convoy with Pakistani officials on their way to the inauguration of another girls’ school — which had been renovated by US aid — when the bomb was detonated.

Pakistan's security forces believed that the route had been cleared of any Taliban fighters, but the blast demonstrated the militants' enduring ability to strike at sensitive areas across the country.

It was also the first major attack since reports that the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed within days of sustaining injuries from a CIA-operated drone strike.

Senior Pakistani military officials said that Mr Mehsud may have been fatally injured in the January 17 airstrike.

The Pakistani military has said it cannot confirm the claim yet, while the Pakistani Taliban fiercely denies it.

But local reports have slowly trickled out indicating that Mr Mehsud has been buried in the Orakzai tribal area, where he first emerged as a ruthless Taliban commander.

After sustaining injuries, Mr Mehsud is suspected to have travelled to the home of his second wife, where a doctor from a private hospital in Hangu was summoned to attend to him.

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