By Hasan Mansoor (AFP) –
KARACHI — Bombers killed three Pakistani soldiers Friday as firefighters battled to control an inferno at a NATO trucking terminal attacked two weeks after Pakistan shut the Afghan border to US supplies.
The roadside bomb exploded alongside a vehicle carrying members of the Rangers paramilitary in Karachi, Pakistan's port city used by the United States to ship the bulk of supplies needed by 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The powerful explosion badly damaged the vehicle and wounded four other soldiers in the eastern part of the city after daybreak, officials told AFP.
"Three troops from Pakistan Rangers were killed and four were hurt. It was a remote control bomb," said Sharfuddin Memon, a spokesman for the home ministry in the southern province of Sindh.
Mohammad Salim, an office worker in a nearby government office, said he saw the troops lying on the ground with the vehicle in flames.
"It was a loud explosion. I was going to the office and I rushed to the spot where the rangers were lying on the ground. They were bleeding," he told AFP.
Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, its financial hub and a lifeline for US and NATO troops fighting the Taliban in landlocked Afghanistan.
But the Afghan border crossings have been closed to NATO for 14 days, the longest period since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in late 2001.
Pakistan shut its two border crossings in the north and southwest on November 26 in protest after NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the deadliest single cross-border attack of the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
The government also ordered US personnel to vacate the Shamsi air base in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, widely reported to have been a hub in the covert CIA drone war against Taliban and Al-Qaeda on Pakistani soil.
Overnight, gunmen destroyed at least 34 trucks in a gun and rocket attack on a NATO trucking terminal in Baluchistan, where police said the fire brigade was still struggling to extinguish the inferno.
"The oil tankers are still on fire. Firefighters have been unable to control it. It was a huge fire," police official Mohammad Majeed told AFP by telephone from the city of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan.
"We have no final count on how many tankers were torched but you can say dozens were destroyed," Majeed added.
Around 44 oil tankers and goods trucks had been parked at the temporary terminal, one of three set up in and around Quetta for stranded vehicles.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack but the Taliban have in the past carried out similar strikes to disrupt supplies.
The bulk of supplies and equipment required by foreign forces in Afghanistan are shipped through Karachi, although US troops have increasingly sought alternative routes through Central Asia owing to violence in Pakistan.
It remains unclear when Pakistan's current blockade will end.
The crisis has been described as the worst to hit the fragile Pakistani-US alliance which had not recovered from a secret American raid that killed Osama bin Laden near the capital on May 2.
Initial findings of a US military investigation into the November 26 strikes are not expected until December 23.
US President Barack Obama has expressed condolences to President Asif Ali Zardari for the deaths, saying it was not a "deliberate attack."
More than 4,700 people have been killed across Pakistan in attacks blamed on Taliban and other Al-Qaeda-linked networks since government troops stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad in 2007.
Karachi has also seen its worst ethnic- and politically-linked unrest in 16 years, with more than 100 people killed in one week alone in October.
The gang wars have been linked to ethnic tensions between the Mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking majority represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Pashtun migrants affiliated to the rival Awami National Party (ANP).