SHAHI KOTO, Pakistan — The deaths of three American special operations soldiers in a roadside bombing in northwest Pakistan have drawn unwanted attention to a U.S. program of training local forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida — a little-publicized mission because of opposition here to American troops on Pakistani soil.
The killings Wednesday were the first known U.S. military fatalities in nearly three years in Pakistan's Afghan border region, where militants are being pummeled by U.S. missile strikes and struggling to regroup following the loss of a key stronghold in a recent Pakistani army offensive.
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.
The U.S. special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said it did not appear the Americans were directly targeted by the blast, which he said was caused by a roadside bomb. Local officials said the device was detonated by remote control, but at least one police officer said it was a suicide attack.
Witnesses said the vehicle carrying the Americans took the brunt of the explosion as their five-car convoy traveled along the road in Lower Dir, indicating that the attack may in fact have been directed at the Americans. That would raise the specter of a militant informant close to the training mission.
Lower Dir is a base for militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani army claimed to have retaken the area from the militants last June in a widely praised offensive that also cleared the insurgents from the nearby Swat Valley.
The soldiers were part of a small group of American soldiers training members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, Pakistan's army and the U.S. Embassy said. The mission is trying to strengthen the ill-equipped and poorly trained outfit's ability to fight militants.
Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan does not allow U.S. combat troops on its territory, making training local security forces an important part of ensuring that militants are not able to use the area as a sanctuary from which to attack American and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.