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Attack in Pakistani capital kills 15

Monday, July 7, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A suicide bomber targeted police officers in Pakistan's capital Sunday, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens while thousands of Islamists marked the one-year anniversary of a deadly military crackdown on a mosque nearby.

The blast -- apparently the deadliest in Islamabad in about a year -- again brought Pakistan's battle against militancy, mainly staged in the northwest tribal regions near Afghanistan, home to the usually tranquil capital.

The attack occurred in an intersection near a police station and a shopping center. Just moments before the explosion, an Associated Press reporter passed by the scene and saw more than 20 police gathered there. Afterward, the area was covered in blood, glass, police riot gear and body parts.

Naeem Iqbal, a police spokesman, said at least 15 people died, most apparently police.

Less than a half mile away, thousands of Islamist students and clerics had gathered in memory of last year's siege of the radical, pro-Taliban Red Mosque.

It was not clear if the events were linked, and a mosque official condemned the attack.

Sunday's blast was reminiscent of a suicide attack that killed at least 13 people and wounded 71 last July 27, the day the Red Mosque first reopened after the military operation. That explosion occurred at a restaurant crowded by police guarding the reopening of the mosque, and several of those killed were officers. Sunday's explosion appeared to be the deadliest blast in Islamabad since then.

The latest attack also came following recent threats of revenge from Pakistani Taliban leaders angered by a paramilitary operation against insurgents in the tribal northwest. A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said that based on witness accounts, the attacker was a man appearing to be "35-, 37-years-old" who ran into the crowd of police. He said police have found the "upper part" of the man's body but did not give more specifics.

Malik said the nation has to think about "who is destabilizing our country" and take action.

"We have to take them out from our ranks," he said. "We have to combat them."

Imtiaz Khan, the casualty medical officer at Federal Government Services Hospital, said at least 36 wounded people were admitted there, nearly all security officials. He said two had died, while 12 were in critical condition.

Violence levels have fallen in Pakistan since last year, but attacks still occur in the country as resentment continues in many corners against the country's partnership with the U.S. in the war on terror.

In June, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people near the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. A statement attributed to al-Qaida took responsibility for that blast, believed to have targeted Denmark over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

In mid-March, a bomb explosion at an Italian restaurant killed a Turkish woman in Islamabad, and wounded 12 others, including four FBI officials.

A new government that came to power following February elections has sought to end militancy in Pakistan primarily through peace deals with extremists. That approach has earned criticism from U.S. officials, who say the deals will simply give time for militants to regroup and intensify attacks on foreign forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

In late June, as militants in Pakistan's northwest increasingly began threatening the key city of Peshawar, the government launched a paramilitary operation in Khyber tribal region to flush out the extremists.

That operation has now been halted while officials try to negotiate peace through tribal elders, but Pakistani Taliban leaders have vowed revenge for the government's show of force.

Much of last year's violence came on the heels of the military crackdown on the Red Mosque.

The siege of the mosque came amid an increasingly violent anti-vice campaign led by the mosque's administrators in which roaming bands of students harassed music and video shops and alleged prostitutes were even kidnapped. Tensions boiled over into gunbattles with security forces trying to enforce government authority.

The government said 102 people, including 11 security personnel, were killed in the eight-day standoff that began July 3 last year.

The siege seriously undermined the government's reputation among ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom believe far more people died, including women and children.

A year later, the mosque standoff still resonates among militant groups, which have referred to it in propaganda videos as a rallying cry.

At the conference at the mosque -- repainted a benign beige -- supporters raised calls for imposing Islamic law and demanded that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf be publicly hanged.

Mohammed Amir Siddiq, a spokesman for the Red Mosque, denounced Sunday's suicide attack and said he was not aware if any of those at the anniversary gathering were wounded.

"This is a very tragic and condemnable incident," Siddiq told The Associated Press. He said the mosque held prayers for victims of the bombing after regular evening prayers.

Kamal Shah, the Interior Ministry secretary, denied that the bombing was a result of poor security for the Red Mosque gathering.

Security arrangements made for the anniversary ceremony were "absolutely comprehensive," he said, noting that "nothing happened to the participants of the gathering."

The blast unnerved residents and others in the capital.

Sughra Bibi, 28, was roaming the area searching for her brother, a police officer.

"I asked the police -- they're not telling me anything, they don't know the names of the dead. I don't know what to do," she said. "We all have to die, sooner or later. But he didn't do anything. They all were innocent people, poor people, these policemen."


Associated Press writers Manal Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan contributed to this report.


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