Two Suicide Attacks Heighten Tension in Pakistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 25, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 24 -- Fears of renewed terrorist violence in this tense country, now ending its third week under emergency rule, were heightened by nearly simultaneous suicide bombings near two military compounds Saturday morning that killed at least 15 people.

The attacks occurred as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a key political rival of President Pervez Musharraf, prepared to return from exile Sunday.

One explosion occurred when a suicide bomber crashed a car into a bus that was carrying employees of the military Inter-Services Intelligence agency to a highly guarded urban compound about 10 miles from this capital city. Officials said that 15 people in the bus and the attacker were killed in the 7:45 a.m. blast and that many others were injured. Some reports put the death toll as high as 35.

"I heard a big bang and I saw the bus in flames," said Wazir Gul Abassi, who owns a small hotel across the street from the intelligence compound. "The firetruck came 15 minutes later, and they tried to open the doors, but they failed. I don't see how anyone inside survived."

The second bomb exploded when a car tried to pass through a checkpoint outside army headquarters, several miles from the other attack. The area was deserted, and no one was killed, but two guards manning the post were injured, authorities said. No group asserted responsibility for either attack, and officials said they did not know who was behind them.

The explosions marked the first suicide bombings in Pakistan since Musharraf, who is also Pakistan's army chief, imposed emergency rule Nov. 3, cracking down on political and media dissent and removing members of the Supreme Court who were hearing legal challenges to his recent reelection.

The timing of the twin bombings evoked comparisons with a far more lethal suicide attack Oct. 18, when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned home after eight years in exile. Her motorcade was moving through a tumultuous welcoming throng in the city of Karachi when a bomb went off nearby, missing Bhutto but killing more than 140 people.

Sharif was overthrown by Musharraf in a bloodless coup eight years ago and is a far more bitter rival than Bhutto, who recently tried to make a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. Sharif flew back to Pakistan earlier this fall from exile in Saudi Arabia, but he was not allowed to leave the plane and was sent back.

This week, Sharif and his family announced he would return again, in time to meet the Tuesday deadline for filing as a candidate for parliamentary elections the government has scheduled for January. Musharraf traveled to Saudi Arabia last week and met with officials there, generating speculation that he was trying to stop Sharif's return.

If Sharif is successful in coming home this time, analysts said, his presence will dramatically alter the political equation here. The government has been trying to stage a controlled transition to civilian rule, in which Musharraf would step down as army chief and take office as a civilian president, probably later this week.

After that, the official plan is to proceed with the parliamentary elections, but it is not clear whether emergency rule would be lifted by then. Even if it is, critics say it will be virtually impossible to hold credible polls so soon after the arrests of thousands of opposition party activists. Bhutto has been placed under house arrest twice, and a handful of key opposition leaders are still in jail.

Government opponents are divided and confused about whether to participate in the elections. Bhutto already has filed candidacy papers, but leaders from several other parties have dismissed the polls as a sham. Sharif has said he hopes to forge a broad coalition against the elections, but he, his wife and several other relatives are also in the process of filing their candidacy papers for parliament.

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