By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Feb. 25 -- Two separate attacks in Pakistan killed at least 11 people on Monday, including the country's surgeon general, the highest-ranking military officer to die in an attack in years, according to government officials.
The first attack occurred in Rawalpindi, the garrison city located near Pakistan's capital, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani army. A suicide bomber approached a cluster of cars stopped at an intersection in the city's center and detonated a vest laden with explosives.
The blast instantly killed Pakistan's surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, his driver and his guard, Abbas said. Five other people were killed, and 20 others were injured.
Abbas said Baig, the principal of Pakistan's army medical college, was the highest-ranking officer killed since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war against terrorism in 2001. While acknowledging that it was a "targeted attack," Abbas cautioned that it was "too early to speculate" whether Islamic extremists might have been behind it.
Within hours of the bombing, gunmen attacked the offices of an international aid organization in restive North-West Frontier Province. The assailants opened fire on several workers at the offices of Plan International, a Britain-based charity focused on aid to children, before detonating a grenade, said Mazhar-ul-Haq Kakakhel, a district police officer in the city of Mansehra.
Details of the attack remained unclear Monday night. According to a statement on Plan International's Web site, the gunmen used three "explosive devices" and killed three staff members. Other reports said four had been killed.
The attacks Monday marked the first major eruption of violence since Pakistan's leading opposition parties won last week's parliamentary elections and announced their intention to begin talks with Islamic extremists.
On Sunday, a top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, declared through a spokesman his group's readiness to negotiate with the new government to end hostilities. But the promise came with a warning -- that anything less than a sharp break from the policies of President Pervez Musharraf could have dire consequences.
"We want to make it clear to those politicians who are going to form the next government not to impose war on us, otherwise we will retaliate vigorously," Maulvi Omar, the spokesman, said in an interview.
Violence and instability in Pakistan have fueled widespread criticism of Musharraf, a former army chief who has struggled to curb extremism. The electoral victory for the opposition has led to speculation that the president, who was reelected last year by the outgoing parliament, will soon resign. He has said repeatedly that he plans serve out his five-year term.
Monday's attacks prompted some among Pakistan's military and political elite to suggest that the latest incidents were a further repudiation of the government.
"This is revenge for the policies of Pervez Musharraf," said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a frequent critic of his former army colleague and a longtime acquaintance of Baig.
The bomb blast in Rawalpindi shattered windows in several shops and set off a wave of panic as people tried to flee the scene.
Sayed Kashif Hussain, 25, a currency exchange owner, was inside his store when the blast rattled the windows. "We were sitting inside eating lunch when we heard a loud explosion," Hussain said. "We were very, very terrified, and when we came outside we saw a lot of people lying injured and dead."
Several who knew Baig said the three-star general seemed an unlikely target for assassination. An eye specialist and 32-year army veteran, he was a father of three and well known as a religious man. Unlike some high-ranking military officials who travel with heavy security details, he was typically accompanied only by his driver and a single guard, according to many who knew him.
"He never bothered with protocol. He was a religious man -- that's why he put his trust in God rather than protocol," said Abdul Hameed, an acquaintance of Baig's who was down the street when the bombing happened.
Government officials in Mansehra said late Monday that police exchanged fire with several gunmen involved in the attack on the offices of Plan International. It was unclear, however, whether any of the gunmen had been killed or captured.
The building that houses the charity's offices had been attacked in November, said Kakakhel, the district police officer. The building is home to several international nongovernmental organizations whose employees include foreign nationals. Kakakhel said no foreign nationals were killed in Monday's attack.
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.