Globe And Mail : Pakistan reels from suicide blast

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pakistan reels from suicide blast

Country on alert after dozens killed by bomber targeting worshippers at mosque

by SAEED SHAH | Special to The Globe and Mail | December 22, 2007

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan was placed on high alert yesterday after a suicide bomb attack in the middle of the country's election campaign killed at least 50 worshippers at a mosque.

The apparent target of the attack was Pakistan's former interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, the top security official until the government was dissolved a month ago to allow an election to take place under a caretaker administration.

He was in charge of the fight against domestic terrorism, including the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, which left more than 100 militants dead and extremist groups vowing revenge.

The bomber struck as the faithful were attending prayers to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, which is traditionally marked by the ritual sacrifice of animals.

"It was a massacre," Mr. Sherpao said.

He is close to Pakistan's highly controversial President, Pervez Musharraf, who is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

The courtyard of the mosque in Mr. Sherpao's home village, in Pakistan's volatile northwest, was left with pools of blood, prayer caps and shoes where about 1,000 worshippers had stood.

It is thought that the attacker, wearing a suicide vest filled with nails and ball bearings, stood several rows behind Mr. Sherpao, who was at the front of the congregation lined up for prayers.

At least 80 were wounded, including Mr. Sherpao's son. Among the 50 dead were policemen who were guarding the former minister.

It was the second time in eight months that he survived a suicide attack. In April, 28 people died when a bomber struck his party headquarters in the nearby town of Charsadda, injuring Mr. Sherpao slightly.

After yesterday's bombing, dozens of police and intelligence agents raided a madrassa, an Islamic school, in a nearby village and arrested seven students, some of them Afghans, police said.

"The intent is to create fear," said Khalid Aziz, a political analyst based in the provincial capital, Peshawar. "It was a warning to Mr. Sherpao not to contest in the elections. He is a symbol, a rich target for the opposing side."

Politicians seeking votes in the run-up to an election on Jan. 8 will now have to reconsider whether they can hold public meetings and canvass openly, said Farzana Shaikh, research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"Obviously this has raised very serious concerns about security," Dr. Shaikh said. "What it clearly points to is a determination on the part of the so-called neo-Taliban not to subscribe to a political process that President Musharraf is obviously very, very keen to have in place."

Further attacks could lead to the postponement of the election, she added.

On Dec. 14, 40 Taliban factions in Pakistan came together to form a unified organization, the Tehrik Taliban-i-Pakistan, which gave the authorities 10 days to halt military operations against them and release their prisoners or they would launch unspecified action "for attaining glorious objectives."

Mixed up with the Pakistani Taliban, sometimes referred to as the neo-Taliban, are Taliban elements from neighbouring Afghanistan, as NATO forces push them back, and al-Qaeda.

Some have suggested that the recent mysterious escape from Pakistani custody of British alleged terrorist Rashid Rauf could be linked to some kind of deal with the militants to free their comrades.

Yesterday in Washington, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Pakistan's lawless border region with Afghanistan and focusing on Pakistan.

"There is no question that some of the areas in the frontier area have become areas where al-Qaeda has re-established itself," Mr. Gates said. "Al-Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistani people."

Extremists mounted their most bloody assault in the country this year on Oct. 18, when twin bombings killed about 140 people in Karachi at a homecoming rally for former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Most attacks, which have sharply escalated since the Red Mosque siege, have targeted the security forces and shown a level of sophistication that experts say is the work of al-Qaeda, rather than the Taliban.

On the Pakistani side of the Afghan border, the state is being driven out altogether by militants. Yesterday in the capital Islamabad, students with family in that region demonstrated, saying it is too dangerous for them to return home.

The students were mostly from the Shia minority sect of Islam. They said that militants would kill any Shiites they found; the names of Shia Muslims often mark them.

Last weekend, after lifting the state of emergency he imposed on Nov. 3, Mr. Musharraf had said he was able to restore the constitution partly because security forces had "broken the back" of terrorism.