- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf narrowly escaped death yesterday when a bomb collapsed a highway bridge just one minute after his motorcade had passed under it.

The blast was at least the third attempt on the life of a leader whose pro-American stance has enraged dozens of Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, many of whom were funded by previous regimes.

“The president’s motorcade passed a minute before the blast,” said a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan. “He is safe and sound.

“It is clearly a terrorist activity,” the general said. “Whether it was an assassination attempt or not, that can be established only after investigation.”

The bomb exploded late yesterday midway between Islamabad airport and Gen. Musharraf’s house in the nearby city of Rawalpindi, about 10 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Gen. Musharraf was on his way from the airport after visiting the southern port city of Karachi.

The road was closed by police barriers on either side of the blast site late yesterday. But witnesses to the explosion said the bridge had collapsed entirely, burying the road below.

“My car was parked in the front row when the president’s car was passing. As the president’s car passed it appeared that somebody tried to blow up the bridge,” said Irfan Mirza, speaking on the evening news. “After that there were clouds of black smoke.”

Iqbal Haider, a senator and former law minister, said in an interview: “This was an assassination attempt, no question. An extremist group was clearly responsible, but which group is hard to say. There are a lot of suspects. A great number of extremist groups have been inside the establishment for a long time.”

Pakistan’s succession of military governments traditionally nurtured the country’s Islamists, seeking popular support and backing for its aggressive stance on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Gen. Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, reined in that policy under U.S. pressure, banning five extremist groups that had relied on government patronage.

Last month, Gen. Musharraf banned six Islamist groups for a second time after they had re-emerged under new names. Gen. Musharraf said at the time that “no militant or sectarian organization will be allowed to function in Pakistan.”

The ban infuriated many Islamists who were already seething over an outbreak of sectarian violence between Pakistan’s majority Sunni and Shi’ite communities. At least 76 persons have been killed in such clashes this year, including religious leaders on both sides.

An assassination attempt on Gen. Musharraf failed last year when a car packed with explosives failed to detonate in a crowded street in Karachi. Three militants were recently sentenced to 10 years in prison in connection with the attempt.

The militants belonged to the al-Almi faction of Harkat-ul Mujahideen, a group also accused of masterminding a suicide attack last year outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, which killed 12 Pakistanis.

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