Suicide Bomb in Pakistan Raises Fresh Fears

A suicide bomber kills more than a dozen people near an outdoor stage where Pakistan's suspended chief justice was to make a speech. The bombing stokes fears of a wider conflict with Islamist militants after the crisis at Islamabad's Red Mosque.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, has killed at least 16 people. The attack occurred near an outdoor stage where the country's suspended chief judge was to address members of Pakistan's opposition parties. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but speculation across the city is of course considerable.

We go now to NPR's Philip Reeves, who is in Islamabad. Good morning, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Any idea who carried out this attack?

REEVES: Well, opinions vary on this. Theories are flying thick and fast. Many people here see it as part of the current violent backlash by Islamist militants who were enraged by the many deaths caused by last week's storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by government forces. And the question that they're grappling with is whether this backlash will eventually die away or whether this is a larger sustained attempt by religious extremists to cause division and chaos and bring down Musharraf.

Some of the victims of last night's bombing were from Benazir Bhutto's opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, who were at the rally supporting the chief justice. And some of them believe this was an attack on that party carried out because Bhutto supported the government's crackdown on the Red Mosque.

WERTHEIMER: This attack is only the latest violence in Pakistan. Do you think the government is going to react with something as serious as martial law?

REEVES: Well, Bhutto herself has actually said the bombing is the work of what she calls a hidden hand, which is trying to create a pretext for canceling the forthcoming elections and imposing emergency rule. And there's been speculation for weeks in Islamabad now that Musharraf is planning just that - emergency rule. But he has repeatedly said that he doesn't intend to do that.

WERTHEIMER: Philip, a new report by intelligence agencies in the United States says that al-Qaida is regenerating in safe havens in northwest Pakistan. Have you had any reaction to that report?

REEVES: Well, for the record, the Pakistan government has dismissed it as absurd. They say that no country has done more than Pakistan to try to flush out al-Qaida. There have been hundreds of arrests over recent years. And they deny any suggestion that al-Qaida is in Pakistan and say that if this is what U.S. intelligence thinks, they should share it with Pakistan, which is after all their partner.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what is the situation in that volatile area? Islamist militants recently renounced a cease-fire there.

REEVES: That's right. And the situation is getting pretty ugly. I mean, there was a lot of bloodshed this weekend when more than 70 people - many of them police and soldiers - were killed in three suicide bombings. And we're just getting reports in now of an attack on a military convoy carrying Pakistani forces in the tribal region of North Waziristan. And these reports speak of at least a dozen killed.

Musharraf's been moving troops into the area, where Islamist militancy, as you say, is at its strongest. And he's being urge on in doing so by the U.S. But there is deep disagreement in Pakistan about whether this is the right approach. For example, the Daily Times, a respected English language newspaper, reports this morning that people within Pakistan's security agencies think that this will only inflame a deeply volatile situation there.

WERTHEIMER: Philip Reeves, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

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Militants Continue Attacks in Pakistan

A Pakistani investigator collects evidence from a bomb blast site in Islamabad.

A Pakistani investigator collects evidence from a bomb blast site in Islamabad. hide caption

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Militants attacked security forces in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, killing 16 soldiers and wounding up to 21 others in two separate strikes against military convoys, officials said.

The escalating violence follows the scrapping by militant leaders of a 10-month-old peace accord with the government in the Afghan frontier region of North Waziristan.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf refused to declare a state of emergency in face of the mounting bloodshed and claimed that al-Qaida in Pakistan was on the run.

"Al-Qaida has weakened because of the actions taken by Pakistani forces," Musharraf was quoted by spokesman Rashid Quereshi as telling newspaper editors.

The president said elections scheduled for later this year would be held on time.

Adding to Musharraf's woes was a suicide bombing Tuesday night in Islamabad before a rally to support the country's chief justice in his face-off with the president. Supporters of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry accused the government of being behind the attack, which killed 16 people. Musharaff tried to fire the independent-minded Chaudhry, sparking a popular backlash.

The violence comes after the army stormed a mosque held by Islamic extremists. The bloodshed has heightened tensions, with religious radicals calling for more revenge attacks on the government, and troops moving into militant strongholds on the border with Afghanistan - a move welcomed by Washington as helping in the fight against terrorists.

Musharraf condemned Tuesday's blast as a "terrorist act," and officials said they were trying to determine responsibility. A security official said the bomber's severed head had been found.

Supporters of Chaudhry accused the government of being behind the mayhem, while an opposition party thought to be considering joining a coalition government with Musharraf said the attack was aimed at its loyalists.

Chaudhry, whose fight against Musharraf's effort to oust him has fueled opposition to the president extending his rule, was a few miles away when the attacker struck about 8:30 p.m. outside the Islamabad district court building.

Kamal Shah, a top Interior Ministry official, said the explosion killed 15 people and wounded 44. Opposition activists, police and bystanders were among the victims.

In the northwest, assailants detonated a remote-control bomb Wednesday and then opened fire on a convoy 25 miles west of North Waziristan's main town of Miran Shah, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad. Sixteen soldiers were killed and 14 injured in the ambush, and five militants were killed, he said.

Earlier, an explosion hit another convey near Miran Shah, wounding one soldier and up to six civilians, Arshad said.

Also Wednesday, five rockets were fired at Miran Shah and an explosion ripped through the home of a pro-government tribal elder. No casualties were reported.

Militants have stepped up attacks in North Waziristan since the agreement ended last weekend. A suicide bomber on Tuesday struck a security check post in the same area, killing three soldiers.

The latest bloodshed has clouded government efforts to resurrect the disputed peace pact in the area along the Afghan border, a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida militants as well as local extremists.

Musharraf insists that the pact - under which the military scaled back its operations in the U.S.-led war on terror in return for pledges from tribal leaders to contain militancy - offers the best long term hope of pacifying the region.

However, U.S. officials have expressed concern that it gives Islamic extremists breathing space to strengthen their operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond.

In an intelligence report unveiled Tuesday in Washington, analysts said the peace pact had given al-Qaida new opportunities to set up terror training camps, improve international communications and bolster operations. Al-Qaida was using its burgeoning strength to plot attacks on American soil, according to the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.

But Pakistan said Wednesday the report was unsubstantiated and asked Washington to provide it with "actionable intelligence."

"We would firmly act to eliminate any al-Qaida hide-out on the basis of specific intelligence or information," the Foreign Ministry said. "(Pakistan is) determined not to allow al-Qaida or any other terrorist entity to establish a safe haven on its territory."

In another border area, militants killed an Afghan refugee they accused of spying for the United States, government official Mawaz Khan said.

Pro-Taliban leaders have disowned the border pact amid violence following a bloody conflict between security forces and militants at Islamabad's radical Red Mosque.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said there was a "possibility" that the northwest attacks were reactions to the Red Mosque siege that began July 3. A total of 144 people have died in suicide attacks, bombings and shootings in Pakistan since the conflict, most of them soldiers and police.

However, the North Waziristan deal had already been fraying for months.

Militant leaders accuse the government of violating the agreement by allowing mysterious nighttime airstrikes on suspected militant hide-outs near the frontier. It remains unclear whether the strikes were carried out by Pakistani forces or U.S. operatives based in Afghanistan.

The surging violence has added to the crisis in Pakistan, where Musharraf also faces threats to his life and calls for him to end eight years of military rule.

From The Associated Press reports

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