Rawalpindi, Dec. 25: Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf survived a second attempt on his life in less than a fortnight when suicide bombers rammed two explosive-laden vehicles into his cavalcade this afternoon, killing themselves and at least 12 others.
The attack came on a day anti-American guerrillas sent more than a dozen rockets slamming into Baghdad and a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three people near Tel Aviv, as new terror alerts rang out around the world on a bloody Christmas.
In Rawalpindi, the blasts scattered debris and body parts over a wide area. The windscreen of Musharraf’s armoured Mercedes was damaged and the green and white state flag blown from its wing, but he was unhurt, officials said.
Reporters were not allowed to visit the site of the explosions, but an interior ministry official was quoted as saying that as many as 14 people were feared dead and 46 injured. A soldier and three policemen were among the dead.
Musharraf, who appeared on television hours later, blamed “terrorists” for the attack. The President, who appeared well, told state-run Pakistan Television it was still unclear who was responsible but added: “Certainly they are terrorists, extremists and wayward people.... They are endangering Islam.”
“I am sorry that 14 people lost their lives and more than 40 were wounded,” he said. “They lost their lives because of me.”
Information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad confirmed the suicide attack. “It was an assassination attempt. Two suicide attackers in two cars tried to hit the President’s vehicle. God has saved him. Three cars of the cavalcade, including the President’s car, were damaged,” he said.
The explosions took place 1.5 km from Musharraf’s official residence, and barely 200 yards from Ammar Chowk, where he escaped an assassination attempt on December 14. Today’s attack was the third attempt on his life in less than two years. He had survived an attempt in Karachi last year.
Soldiers and police cordoned off the area on the road connecting Rawalpindi with the capital Islamabad. The route is used almost daily by Musharraf to drive to and from the capital.
Military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said an inquiry has been ordered into the security lapse. The President is in high “spirits”, he added. “He is a good combination of a leader and soldier.”
India condemned the attack. “The Government of India strongly condemns the heinous terrorist attack against President Musharraf in Rawalpindi earlier today, which took many innocent lives and injured a large number of civilians,” a foreign ministry statement said.
“We express our heartfelt condolences to the families of the casualties,” the statement added.
Analysts believe that elements unhappy with Musharraf’s support to the US in the ongoing war against terrorists and his decision to ban sectarian and extremist outfits may have been involved in the assassination attempts. But officials are reluctant to say who is behind the latest attack.
“It is difficult to determine who is involved in the latest terrorist attack. We will conduct detailed investigations to get to the bottom of the incident,” Major General Sultan said. But he added that Musharraf’s support to the anti-terror campaign is “harming the interests of certain elements”.
Shireen Mazari, head of the state-funded Institute of Strategic Studies, said the attacks could be the work of extremists wanting to derail moves towards peace with India and unhappy with the war on terror.
The attack came just over a week before the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad, due to be attended by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Some analysts wondered whether Vajpayee would want to make the trip given the security concerns. “The incident may put holding of the summit into jeopardy,” senior Pakistani columnist Nasim Zehra said.
She said the pattern of the attacks suggests that this was an attempt to sabotage the summit and added that the development will convey a “very negative signal about security arrangements being made” for the Saarc leaders.
Musharraf brushed aside such concerns. “It is targeted bombing and I am the target,” he said. “People around me are in some danger, but others are not. We are fighting against terrorism. We will continue to fight it. It is my mission to take this country forward.”