Attacks kill 12 in Pakistan

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In separate deadly attacks yesterday, a suicide bomber killed the army's surgeon general and seven other people, and gunmen burst into the offices of a British-based aid group in northwest Pakistan, shooting four local staffers to death and burning down their building.

The assaults, both blamed on Islamic militants, were the most serious outbreak of violence since parliamentary elections a week earlier, in which the ruling party affiliated with President Pervez Musharraf was routed by two main opposition parties.

Taken together, the attacks were an ominous sign that the new coalition government being formed by the election winners might have little more quarter from Islamic insurgents than has the current administration.

In the attack that killed Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmed Baig, the army's top medical officer, a suicide bomber disguised as a street beggar approached the general's car on foot on a busy street in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, authorities said.

Baig was the most senior army official to die in an attack by militants during the six years that Pakistan has been allied with the United States in the fight against Islamic militants.

The bombing was the latest in a string of attacks in Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistani military just south of the capital, Islamabad. Despite tight security inside the military area, attackers have frequently targeted army personnel, including intelligence and security officials, on their way to or from their jobs.

The city was also the scene of the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Her Pakistan People's Party, now led by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, won the largest share of votes in the Feb. 18 elections.

Bhutto's party has said it will ally itself with the other main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, seconded less stridently by Zardari, is demanding Musharraf's ouster and the reinstatement of senior judges fired by the unpopular president late last year. The two parties, together with other parties, are still engaged in coalition negotiations and could name a prime ministerial candidate as soon as next week.

The new government will face an Islamic insurgency that has been particularly fierce in Pakistan's northwest, near the Afghan border. Western-based and Pakistani aid groups operating in the area have often been threatened by radical groups.

Yesterday's attack in the town of Mansehra targeted the offices of Plan International, a British group that concentrates on community-based mother and child care.

Witnesses said up to a dozen gunmen burst into the offices, firing at staffers with assault rifles before tossing grenades into the parking lot, setting vehicles ablaze. The building then caught fire as well. In addition to the four staffers killed, another eight people were injured, witnesses and officials said.

In the Rawalpindi attack, the bomber positioned himself on a busy road choked with midafternoon traffic and apparently waited for a target to approach, said the chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Baig was riding in his official vehicle, which was stopped at a red light when the attacker struck.

The general's bodyguard and driver were killed in the blast, together with five motorists or passengers in nearby cars. More than two dozen passers-by were injured.

Suicide bombings have intensified in Pakistan during the past year, at a pace that drastically quickened after the storming of a radical mosque in the capital in July by government commandos. More than 100 people died in that assault, and a wide range of radical groups swore to take revenge on the government and the security forces.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the bomber in yesterday's attack in Rawalpindi was believed to be a teenager. Radical madrasas, or religious seminaries, have been prime recruiting grounds for militant groups.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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