Pakistan's army suffered a damaging blow after a suicide bomber believed to be in his teens and dressed in a school uniform slipped into a military base yesterday and set off an explosion, killing at least 31 soldiers and cadets.
In an incident that triggered fears of a renewed wave of attacks and highlighted the nation's continued vulnerability to militants, the device was detonated inside a military recruitment camp as cadets were exercising on the parade ground. More than 40 people were also wounded.
As the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack at the Punjab Regiment Centre in the city of Mardan in northwest Pakistan, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the killings. "Such cowardly attacks cannot affect the morale of the security agencies and the resolve of the nation to eradicate terrorism," he said.
Last night there was confusion about the precise age of the bomber. Army officials and intelligence sources said he was a young teenager, with some reports suggesting he was as young as 12. The Government issued a statement saying he was 19 or 20, while the Taliban said he was a serving soldier they had recruited.
What seems clear is that his outfit - the navy blue uniform of the nearby Aziz Bhatti College for the children of serving army personnel - helped him slip past six separate security check-points. The attack has sparked fresh concerns about a possible new flood of attacks, as vowed by the Taliban.
Analysts said that despite a series of military operations against them - the most recent taking place in the nearby Mohmand Agency - the bombing underscores the persistence of militants.
The Mardan attack was the deadliest strike in the country since December 25, 2010, when a woman with a bomb strapped under her burqa killed 43 people at a United Nations food distribution point in the tribal district of Bajaur.
The latest strike came on the day Pakistan and India announced they would renew formal talks suspended in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. One key concern will be the threat of tackling radical Islamic militants, such as those who targeted India's financial capital with the loss of 165 lives.
The two countries said new talks would focus on counterterrorism, humanitarian issues, peace and security, the disputed Kashmir region and other border issues.