Pakistani leader Musharraf survives attempt on life

Friday, December 26, 2003

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Suicide attackers detonated two massive bombs as President Pervez Musharraf's convoy passed on a congested road Thursday, killing 14 people and getting close enough to crack the windshield on his limousine in the second attempt on his life in 11 days.

Musharraf, 60, was unhurt, but the attack -- just a few hundred yards from the site of the previous bombing -- raised troubling questions about the Pakistani leader's ability to hold on to power and keep an Islamic radical movement at bay. The attack occurred a day after Musharraf made a deal with hardline Islamic political parties to quit his post as head of the army by the end of 2004.

Officials said two suicide attackers driving pickup trucks, each loaded with 45 to 65 pounds of explosives, detonated as they tried to ram into the motorcade as it passed two gas stations on a main road at about 1:40 p.m. in Rawalpindi, a bustling city near the capital, Islamabad. Witnesses reported seeing body parts, shattered cars and broken glass along the route.

Two policemen and at least two suicide attackers were among those killed.

, said Abdur Rauf Chaudry, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

At least 46 people were wounded, including several police officials traveling in a van at the back of Musharraf's motorcade. Musharraf expressed grief at the loss of life and said he would do everything in his power to help the families of the victims.

"I know this tragedy happened to them because of me," he said.

The attack occurred just a few hundred yards from where would-be assassins detonated a bomb Dec. 14 that also narrowly missed the president -- and just 10 days ahead of a summit of South Asian leaders to be held in Islamabad.

In the first attempt, high-tech devices in Musharraf's limousine apparently delayed the explosion by jamming electronic signals needed to set the explosives off by timer or remote control. On Thursday, the attackers tried to leave nothing to chance, turning themselves into human bombs.

That attackers could get so close to the heavily guarded leader so soon after the first attempt on his life raised serious concerns about his security -- and increased speculation that somebody close to Musharraf might have been in on the planning.

"There has been a security lapse," said Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed. "Authorities will investigate, but there has definitely been a lapse."

The road where the attack occurred is one used nearly every day by Musharraf as he travels from his residence to his presidential offices.

"It appears that an organized group is chasing the president. The security system has absolutely collapsed," ruling party Sen. Syed Mushahid Hussain told the private GEO television network.

No suspects have been identified in either attack, although both times Musharraf has implicated Islamic extremists who have been angered by his support for the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan had been a key backer of Afghanistan's hardline Taliban regime before Musharraf switched sides following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The attacks also raised fresh questions about the murky issue of succession in this nuclear-armed nation should Musharraf be killed or incapacitated.

A pro-American four-star general, Mohammed Yousaf Khan, is next in line to take command of the army, and Musharraf's ally, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, serves as prime minister but with little power.

Musharraf still enjoys popular support after ousting the ineffective government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless 1999 coup. The general seized power after Sharif denied landing rights to the civilian plane carrying Musharraf, nearly causing it to crash with well over 100 people on board.

Musharraf has been targeted in at least three suicide attacks since he took power, the first one in April 2002 in the southern city of Karachi when a bomb failed to detonate as his motorcade passed. Three Islamic militants were sentenced to 10 years in prison for that plot.

The latest attack came a day after Musharraf agreed to step down as army chief by the end of 2004, ending a political stalemate that had paralyzed parliament and stalled this nation's return to democracy. Under the agreement reached with a coalition of hardline Islamic parties, Musharraf would remain as president but give up the army post.

As a result of the assassination attempts, Hussain said the six South Asian leaders -- including the prime minister of Pakistan's archrival India -- due to attend a Jan. 4-6 summit in Islamabad "might reconsider their plans to come here."

Pakistan and India have recently improved relations, and the summit was seen as an important opportunity to cement recent gains. India condemned the attack, calling it a "heinous" terrorist act and expressing condolences to the families of those killed and injured.

Shortly after Thursday's attack, frantic family members of those killed and injured gathered outside nearby Rawalpindi Central Hospital.

One man, identifying himself as Iqbal and saying he was a friend of one of the dead police officers, blasted Musharraf's government for creating the conditions for the attack.

"This military rule created the terrorists and they are facing the consequences now," he told The Associated Press at the hospital entrance, which was stained with the blood of casualties. "A lot of the people who were hurt and killed in this bombing were just walking on the street. They don't care about politics."

Sadaqat Jan and Matthew Pennington in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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