ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Suicide bombers attacked an Islamic university popular with foreigners in Pakistan’s capital Tuesday, killing four students in apparent retaliation for an escalating army offensive on a Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold near the Afghan border.
An Associated Press reporter close to the battle zone in South Waziristan met a group of Taliban fighters who challenged army claims of progress in the four-day assault, saying they had pushed soldiers back from the strategic town of Kotkai.
Intelligence officials also said the army had been repelled from the town after being close to taking it. They asked that their names not be used for operational reasons.
The suicide bombers hit a faculty building and a women’s cafeteria at the International Islamic University, where nearly half the students are women and hundreds are foreigners.
The blasts, which left bits of flesh and body parts strewn on the floor, killed two male and two female students and wounded at least 18 others. The two attackers were also killed, officials said.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack on what some people thought was a surprising target for Islamist extremists, but the president of the university and authorities said they believed it was the work of militants in the northwest.
Authorities have been warning that militants would try to bring the war to Pakistan’s cities since the army began its offensive. Many schools and universities were closed after receiving word from authorities on Monday they could be targeted.
After the attack, the government ordered all educational institutions closed for a week in three of the country’s four provinces.
The university is attended by 18,000 students. It has close to 2,000 international students, many from China. While it is a seat of Islamic learning, most students take secular courses such as management science or computer studies.
“Those who call themselves champions of Islam, they have today proved by attacking the Islamic university that they are neither friends of Islam nor Pakistan” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik, whose motorcade was stoned by angry students as he left the campus on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Many students did not accept that militants were responsible for attacking a hub of Islamic learning and instead blamed shadowy forces out to discredit Islam or weaken Pakistan – variations of conspiracy theories that are often heard here after bombings.
“It shows clearly that anti-Islamic elements are involved in these attacks,” said economics student Abul Hassan.
Militants from South Waziristan have claimed responsibility for a string of recent terrorist attacks, including a 22-hour siege on the army headquarters close to the capital and a suicide attack on a U.N. office in Islamabad that killed five people.
The army has deployed some 30,000 troops to South Waziristan against about 12,000 Taliban militants, including up to 1,500 foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks and Arabs. The region is also considered a major al-Qaida operations and training base.
In a brief statement, the military said troops backed by aerial bombing were advancing on three fronts, but were meeting stiff resistance from militants on high ground firing rockets and small arms. It reported four more soldiers were killed, bringing the army’s death toll to 13, while 12 militants were slain, bringing their death toll to 90.
An AP reporter came across three Taliban fighters travelling in a car with darkened windows at Shaktoi, a town close the border between South and North Waziristan, which is also home to thousands of Islamist militants. They were carrying assault rifles, grenades and radios.
One of the men, who gave his name as Askari, said they had come from South Waziristan, where they and other fighters had pushed the army back from Kotkai, the birthplace of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and a major strategic prize.
“We are inflicting heavy losses on them,” he said.
It is nearly impossible to independently verify information coming from South Waziristan because the army has closed off all roads to the region. Analysts say both sides have exaggerated successes and downplayed loses in the past.
Askari mocked an appeal by the army chief for villagers to support the offensive.
“The people of this area knew very well whether we are terrorists or fighters for Islam,” he said.
Elsewhere, around 600 villagers who earlier fled the fighting chanted “Long live the Taliban” and “Down with America” after complaining of receiving no government aid for days. The protest took place in Kot Azam in North West Frontier Province, which lies close to the border region.
“I have not received a single penny or a handful of grain,” said Akhtar Mehsud, who left his home two months ago and is now living in the ruins of an old house along with 22 members of his family. “I have now no hope from this government. The Taliban were even better than them.”
The United Nations said at least 32,000 people have fled South Waziristan over the last week, joining more than 80,000 people who left earlier when the army began making preparations for the offensive. Authorities say more will leave in coming weeks, but don’t expect to have to house them in camps because most have relatives in the region.
Associated Press reporters Rasool Dawar in Shatkoi, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Kot Azam and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.