A July 31 article had an incorrect title for Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He is president of Pakistan. (Published 8/2/04)
A suicide bomber killed at least six people and wounded at least 25 others Friday in an assassination attempt targeting Pakistan's prime minister-designate after a political campaign rally in Punjab province, 35 miles southwest of the capital.
The attack, blamed by officials on Islamic militants, came a day after authorities announced the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a senior al Qaeda suspect, and described the arrest as "a major blow" to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. Ghailani had been sought by the United States in connection with the 1998 bombing attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, was not hurt when an assailant approached his armored Mercedes and set off the explosion. Aziz was in the back seat of the car, which was parked in a crowded area after the rally in the town of Fateh Jang, said Tahir Sadiq, the town's mayor, who was sitting in the car next to Aziz.
The mayor also escaped injury, but the driver, who had not gotten into the car, was killed, Sadiq said in a telephone interview. The blast sprayed shrapnel into a crowd of supporters, and at least seven people were seriously wounded.
"It's an absolute miracle that Mr. Aziz escaped this suicide bombing," Sadiq said. "A large space around the car was turned into a small pool of blood."
Two hours after the attack, Aziz told a gathering of supporters outside his Islamabad home that he was all right and would "continue to serve the country with the same commitment and determination." About a dozen heavily armed Pakistani soldiers arrived shortly afterward to guard the residence, local reporters said.
Aziz, Pakistan's finance minister, was named prime minister by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, on June 26. Aziz, 55, a former Citibank executive, is expected to take office following parliamentary elections on Aug. 18.
The suicide bombing followed two assassination attempts against Musharraf in December. Those attacks were blamed on Pakistani militants linked to al Qaeda, and Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for the attack on Friday.
"These cowardly acts will not deter us from our fight against terror. Such dastardly acts are against the tenets and teachings of Islam," Musharraf said in a statement.
Islamic groups and political parties have denounced Musharraf's decision to nominate Aziz as a gesture toward the Bush administration.
"The pro-U.S. president and the prime minister would enforce the American agenda in the region," Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, an Islamic party leader, said in a statement in the national assembly.
After examining the scene of the bombing, Pakistani intelligence officials said the attack did not appear to be related to local politics.
"Apparently this can't be anything other than a terrorist response to our current battle against the local religious terrorists and al Qaeda suspects in this country," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official on condition of anonymity. "We can't ignore the fact that it has happened a couple of days after our major success against al Qaeda."
Officials said Ghailani's arrest Sunday was carried out in a joint operation with U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Not many al Qaeda suspects have been arrested . . . with such a trove of current information on the present-day al Qaeda," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official. "The Americans are absolutely thrilled."
One intelligence official reported seizing a laptop computer when Ghailani was captured, saying that the suspected terrorist was "computer savvy" and "knew how best to use the technology to keep the network energized." U.S. specialists are deciphering information on the computer, which was taken from Ghailani's rented house in a well-to-do neighborhood of Gujrat, an industrial town about 100 miles southeast of Islamabad.
The officials described such seizures of al Qaeda operatives and their equipment as a cumulative process.
"Since 9/11, each significant arrest has led to another," said Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat. "We have also taken out the al Qaeda's local support network. There is every evidence that in our own national security interest we are tightening the noose around al Qaeda in Pakistan, hence there is a wild reaction."
Pakistani security officials have said that a recent surge in terrorist activities in the country is the result of an intensive military operation launched last month against suspected al Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal belt of South Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan.
At least 100 Pakistani troops have been killed during the operation in guerrilla attacks and in direct combat with al Qaeda elements and their sympathizers in the heavily armed tribal areas.
Pakistani intelligence officials also said that some al Qaeda members had slipped from Waziristan into cities, where they were looking for targets.
The bombing on Friday was one of a series of such attacks, security officials said. A senior intelligence official was killed and three others were wounded in two bomb attacks in the northwestern city of Kohat on Wednesday, both blamed on al Qaeda, officials said.
Last month, in one of the worst terrorist attacks against military targets in Pakistan, a motorcade including a top army general was ambushed, killing 10 soldiers in downtown Karachi. Lt. Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hayat was uninjured, but his driver was killed.
The subsequent arrest of nine members of the 20-member militant Islamic group Jundul Islam -- Islamic Army -- yielded information that key members of the organization had been trained by al Qaeda instructors in South Waziristan, officials said.