| Security officials watch a bus on fire after the suicide bombing in Rawalpindi on Saturday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Nov. 24: Suicide bombs exploded almost simultaneously this morning outside two military compounds in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, killing 30 people and raising fears of more violence as a key political rival of President Pervez Musharraf prepared to return from exile tomorrow.
One explosion detonated when the driver of a suicide car crashed into a bus carrying employees of the military Inter-Agency Intelligence service into a highly guarded urban compound, about 10 miles from Islamabad.
Officials said 15 people in the bus were killed in the 7.45 am blast as well as the bomber, and many others were injured.
“I heard a big bang and I saw the bus in flames,” said Wazir Gul Abassi, who owns a small hotel across the street from the intelligence compound.
“The fire truck came 15 minutes later and they tried to open the doors, but they failed. I don’t see how anyone inside survived.”
The second bomb exploded when a car tried to pass through a checkpoint into army headquarters, several miles from the other attack. The area was deserted and no one was killed, but two guards manning the post were injured, authorities said.
No group claimed responsibility for either attack, and officials said they did not know who was behind them.
The explosions marked the first suicide bombings in Pakistan since Musharraf, who is Pakistan’s army chief, imposed emergency rule on November 3, cracking down on political and press dissent and removing members of the supreme court who were hearing legal challenges to his recent re-election.
The timing of the twin bombings immediately evoked comparisons with a far more lethal suicide bomb that greeted former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on October 18, when she arrived home from eight years in exile. Her motorcade was driving through a tumultuous welcoming throng in the city of Karachi when the bomb went off nearby, sparing Bhutto but killing more than 140 people.
Nawaz Sharif, another former Prime Minister, is also planning to return and aides said he could arrive tomorrow. He was overthrown by Musharraf in a bloodless coup eight years ago and is a far more bitter rival than Bhutto, who recently tried to work out a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. Sharif flew to Pakistan earlier in September from his exile in Saudi Arabia, but he was not allowed to leave the plane and was sent back.
This week Sharif and his family announced he would return again, in time to meet the Tuesday deadline to file as a candidate for parliamentary elections the government has scheduled for January. Musharraf travelled to Saudi Arabia last week and met officials there, amid speculation that he was trying to stop Sharif’s return.
If Sharif is successful in coming home this time, analysts said, his presence will dramatically alter the political equation here.
The government has been trying to stage a controlled transition to civilian rule, in which Musharraf will step down as army chief and take office as a civilian President.
After that, the official plan is to hold parliamentary elections in January, but it is not clear whether emergency rule will be lifted by then. Even if it is, critics say it will be virtually impossible to hold credible polls just after a period in which thousands of Opposition party activists have been arrested.
The Pakistan election commission today endorsed the controversial re-election of Musharraf who is likely to take oath on November 29.