Pakistan’s Taliban said its suicide bombers carried out an attack on Wednesday that killed 20 people in the southwestern city of Quetta to avenge the capture of an al Qaeda leader.
The attack targeted and wounded a brigadier of a paramilitary unit involved in Pakistan’s capture of Younis al-Mauritani and two other al Qaeda operatives in Quetta in an operation announced on Monday.
Al Qaeda has been weakened by the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in Pakistan on May 2 and other setbacks including the capture of Mauritani, analysts say.
But Wednesday’s attack illustrates how al Qaeda can turn to close allies like the Taliban to help it wage holy war during difficult times.
“Our fidayeen (suicide bombers) have carried out this attack. It is a revenge for the arrests of our brothers in Quetta,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“If they make more arrests then the reaction will be much more forceful.”
Mauritani has been described as a senior al Qaeda leader who was plotting attacks against American and other Western targets.
“This (Wednesday’s) attack has all the hallmarks of the Taliban. It seems to be revenge for the arrest of al-Mauritani,” said a senior security official.
The White House hailed Pakistan’s capture of Mauritani as an example of counter-terrorism cooperation, suggesting Washington and Islamabad had put behind them bitterness caused by the unilateral raid that killed bin Laden on May 2.
The United States wants Pakistan to crack down harder on militants, especially ones who cross the unruly border intoÂ AfghanistanÂ to attack U.S.-led NATO forces and Afghan troops.
But Pakistan’s military says it is stretched fighting militants at home who continue to pose a major security threat despite several offensives against their mountain strongholds.
Rooting out militancy in Pakistan is far more difficult than capturing or killing high-profile al Qaeda leaders.
For one, the cash-strapped South Asian nation must create more jobs to prevent militant groups from recruiting young men who are frustrated with the state.
Intelligence officials put the death toll from the Quetta attack at about 25. Sixty-one people were wounded.
The head of one of the suicide bombers had been found, and the features indicated he may have been from Afghanistan’s Tajik ethnic group, said the senior security official.
One of the suicide bombers blew himself up in a vehicle packed with explosives near the car of the deputy head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, Farrukh Shehzad.
Shehzad’s wife was killed, police said.
The other suicide bomber struck inside his house. The dead also included a colonel in Pakistan’s paramilitary forces and seven of Shehzad’s guards. The explosions brought down the walls of his house and nearby offices.
A man drenched in blood sat dazed beside the road next to the dead body of a baby, whose mother was also killed. Auto-rickshaws were ripped apart by the force of the blasts.
Autonomy-seeking militants demanding a greater share of the profits from oil and other resources in the province of Baluchistan, of which Quetta is the capital, have also waged a low-level insurgency for decades.
Those fighters, who are not linked to the Taliban, attack infrastructure, including natural gas facilities, and the security forces.