ISLAMABAD (AP) - The suicide bomber who killed three U.S. soldiers in northwestern Pakistan rammed his car into their vehicle, raising questions about whether the attacker had inside information on the location of the troops, police said Thursday.
The attack, which occurred Wednesday in the former Pakistani Taliban stronghold of Lower Dir, came as U.S. intelligence officials said they believe the militant group's chief recently died from injuries sustained in a U.S. drone strike in mid-January.
Police official Naeem Khan said Pakistani authorities were investigating whether the suicide bomber knew the soldiers, who were training Pakistani forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, would be passing through Shahi Koto town where the attack occurred and which vehicle to target out of the five-car convoy.
"We launched a massive search in the area yesterday, and now about 35 suspects are in our custody and we are questioning them in an effort to trace those who orchestrated the suicide attack," Khan told The Associated Press. "God willing, we will capture those responsible for this carnage."
The blast also killed three girls at a nearby school and a Pakistani paramilitary soldier traveling with the Americans. Two more U.S. soldiers were wounded, along with about 100 other people, mostly students at the school. Several were left trapped, bloodied and screaming in the rubble.
U.S. officials said Wednesday it did not appear the soldiers were specifically targeted in the attack, but the latest information raises the specter of a militant informant close to the training mission.
The soldiers' deaths were the first known U.S. military fatalities in nearly three years in Pakistan's Afghan border region, drawing attention to a training program officials rarely discuss because of opposition here to American boots on Pakistani soil.
Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan does not allow U.S. combat troops on its territory, making training local security forces an important part of trying to prevent militants using the area as a sanctuary from which to attack American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has also relied on drone missile strikes to target militants in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal area near the Afghan border. A senior intelligence official said Wednesday that U.S. counterterrorism officials believe Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is dead following one such strike last month.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
The statement came after days of posturing by Pakistani Taliban officials, who first said they would prove their leader was alive and well, then reversed course and said they saw no need to prove it.
Mehsud's death could prompt a power struggle among potential successors, said Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in Pakistan's northwest. Such a struggle occurred after former Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. missile in August.
Bilour ruled out the possibility of peace talks with the militant group unless "they accept the authority of the government."
It was unclear whether Wednesday's bombing had any connection to Mehsud's reported death.
The soldiers killed Wednesday were part of a small group of American troops training members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps, the U.S. Embassy said.
While not a secret, neither the Pakistanis or the Americans have talked much about the program because of the political sensitivity in Pakistan of accepting American assistance. While the government in Islamabad is closely allied with Washington, America is deeply unpopular among many Pakistanis, even those who recognize that fighting militants is in their country's interest.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the incident was still under review, said at least one of the three American soldiers was a member of a unit designed to help local authorities publicize positive news - in this case, apparently, the opening of a girls school, which the embassy said had been renovated with U.S. humanitarian assistance.
Two local journalists in the convoy were under the impression that the soldiers, who were in civilian clothes, were American journalists because of comments from a Pakistani soldier suggesting that was the case.
Express TV reporter Amjad Ali Shah said as the convoy was about to leave from a paramilitary base, a Pakistani soldier entered the room and said to an officer, "Sir, the foreign journalists have arrived," in an apparent reference to the American contingent.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said authorities were looking into how the soldiers were presented.
Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report from Washington.