By Saud Mehsud and Mushtaq Ali
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) – A six-man suicide squad drove an explosive-laden truck into a military camp in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least 23 soldiers, the army said, the heaviest death toll in a single attack in years, less than two months ahead of elections.
The gun and bomb attack, which was claimed by an Islamist militant group, comes as political watchers have already voiced concerns about holding the vote, scheduled for Feb. 8, amid a surge in militant attacks in the northwest and southwest.
The attack occurred in the remote district of Dera Ismail Khan on the edge of lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, the army said in a statement, adding all six attackers were killed in an ensuing battle.
Two security officials had earlier put the death toll at 24.
The army had set up the base camp in a police station complex in the Daraban area of the district.
“The attempt to enter the post was effectively thwarted, which forced the terrorists to ram an explosive-laden vehicle into the post, followed by a suicide bombing attack,” the army statement said.
The resulting blasts led to the collapse of the building, causing multiple casualties, it added.
The army said the attack came a day after two soldiers were killed in different operations in the region, along with 21 militants.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar condemned the attack, a statement from his office said. “My deepest sympathies with the families of our brave martyrs. We will fight back,” he said later in a social media post on X, formerly Twitter.
Several of the wounded were in critical condition, said Aizaz Mehmood, an official of the state-run rescue service.
In a statement, a Pakistani Taliban group, the Tahreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), which has emerged recently and claimed several big bombings in recent months, said its militants carried out the attack to target the Pakistani army.
It has not clarified whether it is part of the main Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, which is an umbrella of several Islamist and sectarian outfits.
The TTP has been waging a war against the state for years, seeking to overthrow the government and replace it with a harsh brand of Islamic system of governance.
The Pakistani military has conducted several operations against the militants, especially in Waziristan region next to the district where the latest attack occurred, which once served as a headquarters of the local and foreign Islamist militants.
The militants have ramped up their attacks since they revoked a ceasefire with the government last year.
(Reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Mushtaq Ali in Peshawar; Writing and reportig by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Clarence Fernandez, Gerry Doyle, Kim Coghill and Alison Wlliams)