Philly dot Com : Bhutto Warns of Anarchy Amid Bombings

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bhutto Warns of Anarchy Amid Bombings

PAUL ALEXANDER | The Associated Press | December 17, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A bomber killed nine Pakistani soldiers Monday as they strolled back to barracks after a game of soccer, the army said, the latest in a string of suicide blasts spreading fear ahead of crucial elections.

Police, meanwhile, were still searching for a British suspect in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners who escaped from police custody over the weekend.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto warned that extremism would spread unless the Jan. 8 elections were fair, and that a rigged vote in favor of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf could pitch Pakistan into "anarchy."

The suicide bomber struck near an army base in Kohat, about 80 miles west of Islamabad. Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, an army spokesman, said nine troops were killed and four others wounded.

The young army recruits, still in their soccer clothes, were walking back to their quarters along a public road when a lone bomber walked up to them and set off the blast, Arshad said.

It was the sixth suicide bombing in the past two weeks. At least 32 people have died , 20 soldiers and police, and 12 civilians. One of the attacks was carried out by a woman, a first in Pakistan.

No one has claimed responsibility, but officials blame militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida who have expanded their influence in areas near the Afghan border.

Arshad said it was possible that the attacks were a reaction to an army operation against militants in the Swat valley, a former tourist destination about 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The army claims to have killed about 300 militants in Swat since last month. Artillery and helicopter gunships pounded targets there on Monday.

Arshad said the army is investigating media reports that Pakistani militant groups have formed a new umbrella organization to wage jihad, or holy war, against the Pakistani government and foreign forces in Afghanistan.

The violence has a mixed effect on Musharraf as he tries to stay in control of this nuclear-armed nation.

Western governments continue to value him as a stalwart ally against international terrorism.

But critics say his sidelining of mainstream parties and reliance on force since he seized power in a 1999 coup have pushed more and more Pakistanis into the arms of extremist groups.

Addressing thousands of supporters during a campaign stop in Hyderabad, Bhutto slammed the rule of Musharraf, who gave up his dual role as army chief last month, as a "dark era of dictatorship" and said that an unfair vote could destabilize Pakistan.

"If the militancy spreads and if, God forbid, the country disintegrates, it would become another Afghanistan," Bhutto said.

Musharraf cited the need to curb militancy when he imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3, although he used it to crack down on dissent and purge the judiciary.

He lifted the emergency on Saturday. But police cracked down hard Monday on 300 demonstrators who marched toward an enclave in the capital where Pakistan's former chief justice is held under house arrest.

Demonstrators chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!" and some threw rocks at riot police, who replied with tear gas and a baton charge. Police detained dozens of people. Several officers and reporters were hurt.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration was pleased to see Musharraf follow through on his pledge to lift the state of emergency.

"Now, that they've moved forward ... it's very important that the opposition parties and everybody have access to a free media so that they can have a free and fair election," Perino said.

The opposition claims it will win a fair vote, putting it in a position to challenge Musharraf's newly civilian presidency.

Musharraf has promised the elections will be free and transparent, and has called the rigging allegations an attempt by the opposition to create an excuse in case they fare poorly at the ballot box.

His Western backers have welcomed the end of the emergency while urging Musharraf to lift remaining restrictions on the media and political parties.

Britain is also seeking an explanation of how Rashid Rauf, a terror suspect it wants extradited in relation to a separate murder case, slipped through the hands of his guards over the weekend.

A police official said Rauf escaped when two police officers taking him back to jail from an extradition hearing in Islamabad agreed to stop en route to jail so he could say prayers.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said Rauf slipped out the mosque's back door while the two guards waited in a car outside.

Rauf, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, was arrested here in August 2006. Pakistan described him as a key suspect in a purported plot to blow up airplanes flying from Britain to the United States that prompted a major security alert at airports worldwide.

Rauf denied involvement in the plot and prosecutors later withdrew the case against him, though he remained in jail awaiting a decision on a British extradition request.

Associated Press writers Stephen Graham and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Ashraf Khan in Hyderabad contributed to this report.