- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — For the second time in 11 days, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf escaped an assassination attempt yesterday as suicide bombers detonated two massive explosives as his convoy passed on a congested road.

Fourteen persons were killed, many of them passers-by. The explosions occurred close enough to crack the windshield of Gen. Musharraf’s limousine.

Gen. Musharraf, 60, was unhurt, but the attack — just a few hundred yards from the site of a Dec. 14 attempt on his life — raised troubling questions about the Pakistani leader’s ability to hold on to power and keep an Islamic radical movement at bay. The attack came a day after Gen. Musharraf struck a deal with hard-line Islamic political parties to step down as army chief by the end of next year.

In a televised interview about seven hours after the attack, the president — a close ally in the U.S. war on terrorism — blamed Islamist militants for both attacks and vowed to “cleanse the country of these extremists.”

Officials said the attackers tried to ram the motorcade with two pickup trucks, each loaded with 45 to 65 pounds of explosives, as it passed two gas stations on a main road at about 1:40 p.m. local time in Rawalpindi, a bustling city near the capital, Islamabad. Witnesses reported seeing body parts, shattered cars and broken glass along the route.

“There was a vehicle that approached me, my car,” Gen. Musharraf said. “A policeman stopped it, it exploded, I saw it. The only thing [that] happened was we went faster, but in the process in front of us there was another bomb that blasted. Again nothing happened to us and we went through the debris. We stopped safe and secure.”

He appeared calm, wearing a navy-blue business suit.

Two policemen and at least two suicide attackers were among those killed, said Abdur Rauf Chaudry, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

At least 46 persons were wounded, including several police officials traveling in a van at the back of the president’s motorcade.

It happened just 10 days ahead of a summit of South Asian leaders to be held in Islamabad, and on the same road where a bomb on Dec. 14 also narrowly missed the president.

In the first attempt, high-tech devices in Gen. Musharraf’s limousine apparently delayed the explosion by jamming the bomb’s electronic trigger. Yesterday’s attackers, trying to leave nothing to chance, turned themselves into human bombs.

Gen. Musharraf uses the route nearly every day to get to his office. But the fact that attackers could twice get so close to the heavily guarded leader raised serious concerns about his security — and increased speculation that somebody close to Gen. Musharraf might have been in on the planning.

“There has been a security lapse,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said. “Authorities will investigate, but there has definitely been a lapse.”

“It appears that an organized group is chasing the president. The security system has absolutely collapsed,” ruling party Sen. Syed Mushahid Hussain told the private GEO television network.

No suspects have been identified in either attack, although Gen. Musharraf has blamed both on Islamist extremists angered by his support for the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan backed Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime before Gen. Musharraf switched sides following the September 11 terror attacks.

The attacks also raised questions about the murky issue of succession in this nuclear-armed nation.

A pro-American four-star general, Mohammed Yousaf Khan, is next in line to take command of the army. Gen. Musharraf’s ally, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, is prime minister but with little power.

Gen. Musharraf still enjoys popular support after ousting the ineffective government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999.

In April last year, a bomb aimed at his motorcade in the southern city of Karachi failed to detonate. Three Islamist militants were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The latest attack came a day after Gen. Musharraf agreed with a coalition of Islamic parties on a timetable for stepping down as army chief but staying on as president. The deal ended a stalemate that had paralyzed parliament and stalled this nation’s return to democracy.

Gen. Musharraf expressed grief at the loss of life in yesterday’s attack and said he would do all he could to help the victims’ families.

“I know this tragedy happened to them because of me,” he said.

Among frantic relatives and friends of the victims gathered outside Rawalpindi Central Hospital, a man identifying himself as Iqbal accused Gen. Musharraf’s government of creating the conditions for the attack.

“This military rule created the terrorists, and they are facing the consequences now,” he said. “A lot of the people who were hurt and killed in this bombing were just walking on the street. They don’t care about politics.”

Sadaqat Jan and Matthew Pennington in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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