| Policemen examine a body after the shooting incident in Karachi. (Reuters)
Islamabad, June 10: Pakistan’s regional army commander narrowly escaped an assassination attmept today when gunmen ambushed his motorcade in the troubled port city of Karachi.
Eleven people were killed, including seven army personnel and three policemen.
After repeated denials, military officials later admitted that the attack was meant to kill Lieutenant General Ahsan Saleem Hayat. “Yes, it was an attempt on his (the corps commander) life but he escaped,” the chief military spokesman General Shaukat Sultan said.
It was the first attack on any senior military official since three failed murder attempts on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in December last year.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack but Sultan said “it is clearly an act of terrorism”.
At least 13 people were also wounded in the attack.
According to the police, three or four gunmen started firing on Hayat’s convoy as it approached a bridge in Karachi’s affluent Clifton area at 0415 GMT and followed it up with a powerful bomb blast.
Security forces defused a second bomb of about 5 kg.
The police said they discovered powerful explosives near the bridge at the scene of the ambush. The police said the gunmen, who appeared to be highly trained, escaped in a rented van abandoned about 10 km from the site of the attack. They said they found a Kalashnikov rifle, empty shells and a mask inside.
The van was reportedly stolen from the Sharah-e-Faisal area early today.
Today’s attack came just one day after a bloody shootout between paramilitary forces and alleged local and foreign al-Qaida operatives in the South Waziristan region. Eighteen armymen and at least eight alleged foreign terrorists were killed in yesterday’s bloody encounter, according to sources in Wana, the administrative headquarters of South Waziristan.
Wanted al Qaida fugitive Nek Mohammad said during an interview with the BBC late yesterday that his people would avenge the killings in South Waziristan prompting speculation that today’s attack in Karachi was a form of retaliation.
It also coincided with the swearing in of a new chief minister of the Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital.
Arbab Ghulam Rahim replaced his predecessor Sardar Mohammad Ali Mehar who stepped down on Monday for his failure to maintain law and order in Karachi.
Terrorist attacks on mosques, shooting incidents and rampant violence following the murder of pro-Taliban Sunni cleric left more than 60 people dead in Karachi in May.
Pakistan placed its international airports at Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad on high security alert today after intelligence reports that there was a threat of hijacking, a government official said.
“There is a high alert at the three international airports after hijacking threats,” said Major Riaz Ahmad, a spokesman for the Airport Security Force. “We received some intelligence reports on hijacking last night and have beefed up security.”
A security agency source said the alert was to ward off any retaliation to a military crackdown on foreign militants in a remote tribal region this week in which dozens have been killed.
A series of rockets hit three villages near the country’s largest natural gas field in southwestern Pakistan today, wounding at least 12 people but none of them seriously, police and residents said. Police said 15 rockets fell in three villages in Sui area, 280 km southeast of Quetta in Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan.
In Baluchistan, eight of the rockets fell in residential areas, wounding 12 people, including three women and two children, one of the injured, Wali Jan Hamzani, told Reuters by telephone from the area. He said his injuries were not serious.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, although the Sui gas fields and the pipelines taking the gas to other parts of the country have come under frequent rocket attacks this year from disgruntled tribesmen seeking more autonomy.