Musharraf’s plane was fired upon, security aide says

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A burst of gunfire went off as President Pervez Musharraf’s plane left a military base yesterday, in what one official described as a failed assassination attempt.

Security forces quickly raided a nearby home with two anti-aircraft guns on the roof, taking the owner in for questioning and searching for the couple who rented the property this week, officials said.

“It was an unsuccessful effort by miscreants to target the president’s plane,” said a senior security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They fled quickly, and our security agencies are still investigating.”

The government, however, said it had yet to establish whether it was an attack on Gen. Musharraf.

The senior security official said Gen. Musharraf was aboard when the plane came under fire, but insisted the aircraft was not within range of the attempt in Rawalpindi, a garrison city south of the capital where Gen. Musharraf narrowly escaped two attempts on his life in 2003.

Photographs taken from an overlooking building showed a large gun on a tripod pointed skyward and a machine gun next to a rusty satellite TV dish and a plastic water tank on the flat roof of the two-story building. Two anti-aircraft guns and a light machine gun were found on the roof and the homeowner was taken in for questioning, three officials said.

According to state-run Pakistan Television, Gen. Musharraf flew from the air base and later safely landed in Turbat, a remote southwestern town where he was to inspect efforts to bring relief to hundreds of thousands of people affected by recent catastrophic flooding.

Gen. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, narrowly escaped two bombings within 11 days which targeted his limousine in December 2003.

The Pakistani president has come under increasing criticism for his decision to suspend the country’s chief justice, and his government faces pressure in the capital where the top-ranking cleric of a radical mosque besieged by government forces rejected calls for an unconditional surrender yesterday, saying he and his die-hard followers were ready for martyrdom.

Heavy gunfire and explosions rocked Islamabad early today as Islamist students holed up in a mosque battled Pakistani security forces after the militants’ leader defied government demands to surrender.

The fortified Lal Masjid compound, or Red Mosque, has been under siege by hundreds of troops and police since Tuesday when months of tensions boiled over into clashes between security forces and Muslim clerics and their religious students. At least 19 people have been killed.

“We will not surrender. We will be martyred, but we will not surrender,” cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi told GEO television, a private channel. “We are more determined now.”

The government, keen to avoid a bloodbath, said troops would not storm the mosque while women and children were inside.

Government spokesman Tariq Azim told Dawn News Television that Sheik Ghazi’s talk about martyrdom was a bluff, noting that his brother, chief cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, said the same thing and then was arrested trying to sneak out of the complex disguised as a woman in a burqa and high heels.

The violence brought to a head a six-month standoff between Maulana Aziz and Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government. Maulana Aziz has challenged Gen. Musharraf with a campaign against vice that has included kidnapping police officers and purported prostitutes.

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