- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

KARACHI, Pakistan — Police defused a large bomb less than five minutes before it was timed to detonate outside the U.S. Consulate yesterday, averting a devastating terrorist attack two days before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visits this country.

The close call came as President Pervez Musharraf, a top Washington ally, said a Libyan member of al Qaeda was behind two bombings he narrowly escaped in December. Mr. Musharraf has vowed to purge Pakistan of hundreds of foreign terrorists.

It was not clear who was behind the thwarted attack on the consulate in Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city of 14 million people and scene of a wave of anti-Western bombings since September 11 — but suspicions immediately focused on Islamic extremists blamed for previous blasts.

Pakistan’s military leader has enraged radicals because of his backing of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Gen. Musharraf switched allegiance in the days after September 11, withdrawing what had been strong support for Afghanistan’s hardline Taliban militia government and working with Washington to engineer its ouster.

“The man or men who left this van near the U.S. Consulate building wanted to blow it up,” said Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, in Islamabad.

The Pakistani government and U.S. Embassy said Mr. Powell, currently in India, would arrive tomorrow for a two-day visit of Pakistan as planned. Mr. Powell’s itinerary does not include this southern city.

Pakistani police, using footage from surveillance cameras at the U.S. Consulate, said a man dressed in a traditional Pakistani tunic parked a van outside the heavily guarded consulate at 7:14 a.m. and fled in a car after he was challenged by a paramilitary guard.

Inside the van, police bomb disposal experts found a plastic water tank containing about 200 gallons of a liquid explosive mix — including the combustible fertilizer chemical ammonium nitrate — attached to detonators and a timer. They moved the bomb to a safe location and defused it.

A police investigator, Qazi Chand, said that “only four and a half minutes were left for the bomb to detonate when bomb disposal experts successfully defused it.”

The van used in the attempted bombing had been seized from a 17-year-old Pakistani student late Sunday in Karachi.

Andrew Steinfeld, the counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said police defused the bomb before most of the two dozen American and Pakistani staff had arrived for work. The consulate was shut for the day. Hundreds of policemen and paramilitary troops cordoned off the consulate — scene of at least two previous attacks.

In June 2002, a suicide bomber blew up a truck in front of the U.S. Consulate, killing 14 Pakistanis. In February 2003, a gunman opened fire on a police post guarding the consulate, killing two policemen and wounding at least five other persons.

Four men suspected of belonging to the outlawed Islamic militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen Al-Almi were convicted last year for the June 2002 bombing.

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