Extremists continue Pakistani onslaught

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -

More extremist attacks shook Pakistan yesterday on the heels of a devastating bomb attack on the capital's best-known hotel. Gunmen took the Afghan consul-general hostage after killing his driver, and suicide bombers killed nine police officers at a checkpoint in the valley of Swat, northwest of the capital.

The bombing Saturday of the deluxe Marriott Hotel, in which at least 53 people died and more than 260 were wounded, was still shrouded in mystery. A little-known terrorist group called Fadayeen Islam - "Islamic Commandos" - took responsibility in a tape given to a Dubai-based television news channel, claiming that there had been 250 U.S. Marines and NATO officials at the hotel. Security experts said it was highly unlikely that U.S. forces would be stationed at so vulnerable a location.

Whoever was behind the bombing, it appeared to signal a new phase in the militants' war against the Pakistani state, with a strong sense in the country that it is sliding toward chaos.

"Pakistan is teetering on the brink," said Farzana Shaikh, an associate research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a policy-research organization in London. "There is a weak and deeply divided government and a disoriented army with no clear strategy."

Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, who took office this month, arrived in New York yesterday, where he will hold talks with President Bush today. Analysts think that Zardari will have to try to convince Washington to ease the pressure on his government, which is being sharply criticized at home for following former President Pervez Musharraf's lead and drawing close to the United States.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they thought that al-Qaida or extremists allied with the terrorist group were responsible for Saturday's attack and that the Marriott was hit because it was a "soft target." The motive, they said, might have been retaliation for cross-border strikes that U.S. forces have conducted in Pakistan's tribal areas, along the border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government claimed that the bombing came close to hitting the entire Pakistan political and military leadership, which was supposed to have dined at the Marriott on Saturday. Rehman Malik, the head of the Interior Ministry, said that a dinner hosted by the speaker of the parliament for the government and military top brass was supposed to have taken place at the Marriott but that security fears led to a late change.

"At the eleventh hour, the dinner was shifted to the prime minister's house, which saved Pakistan's entire military and political leadership," Malik said. "Perhaps the earlier information of the dinner was leaked to the militants and, therefore, they hit Marriott Hotel."

But the management of the Marriott said that no such booking had been made. U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to journalists, were skeptical of Malik's assertion.

"It's likely that an attack of this magnitude was in the works for weeks, if not months, in terms of the size of the blast and other factors," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who asked not to be further identified so that he could speak more freely.

He said it would have taken considerable time to plan the operation, amass the huge amount of explosives used and construct the bomb.

A recent wave of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal area and a ground assault by U.S. commandos earlier this month have stoked a wave of anti-Americanism in the country, destabilizing the government.

"Our orders are clear: not to allow any incursion of anybody in Pakistan. American troops are coming, without letting us know, without Pakistan's permission. They are violating the United Nations charter," Zardari said in an interview with NBC that was broadcast yesterday. "Pakistan is capable [of fighting terrorism] with the help of the world. Yes, we are capable."

There were reports from the tribal territory that Pakistani troops and tribesmen had opened fire on two U.S. military helicopters that had entered the area, forcing them to retreat, in what would be at least the second such incident this month. The militaries of both countries denied the story, which was attributed to unnamed Pakistani intelligence agents.

Some American officials think that Pakistani officials are floating these allegations as part of an effort to neutralize a popular perception that the U.S.-backed government in Islamabad has cooperated in the U.S. missile strikes and commando raid.

Separately, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in Washington that his country wanted to set up a joint military force with Pakistan that would have the power to operate on both sides of the countries' border, where extremists have found sanctuary.

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