Musharraf narrowly escapes assassination attempt

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The Independent Online

Pakistani authorities were last night investigating whether the country's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, was the target of an assassination attempt after a bomb detonated on a road minutes after his motorcade passed.

The explosion happened about a mile from the Islamabad International Airport as the president was returning home after a visit to the southern city of Karachi. Witnesses said the blast occurred at a bridge close to a military compound. Sheharyar Khan, whose car was stopped at a roadblock shortly afterwards, said: "As the president's motorcade passed, a huge explosion blew up the bridge."

A military spokesman, Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan, said Mr Musharraf was "safe and sound". He said it was a "terrorist act", but only an investigation would determine whether it was aimed at the Pakistani leader.

However, another official confirmed that the president, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, was the target of the bomb. An Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press: "Definitely, definitely, it was meant for President Musharraf."

Police and soldiers cordoned off and searched the area. There was a large crater in the road where the bomb exploded.

Mr Musharraf has long been considered at risk of attack, despite the strength of support he has from Pakistan's military and intelligence services. He has angered Pakistan's militant Islamist groups by backing the United States afterthe 11 September terrorist attacks, for which he was rewarded with substantial financial aid from abroad. But that also made him many enemies at home, especially among the religious militant groups.

He has led a nationwide hunt for al-Qa'ida suspects that has resulted in the capture of hundreds of guerrillas, many of whom have been handed over to the US. They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected planner of the 11 September attacks who was caught in Rawalpindi earlier this year. The hunt is continuing for al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, believed by some to be hiding near the Afghan-Pakistan border.

There have been at least two prior attempts to kill the Pakistani leader. In October a court convicted three Islamic militants for attempting to assassinate him in Karachi last year, handing them 10-year jail terms. The militants belonged to al-Almi faction of Harkat-ul Mujahideen, a group also accused of planning a suicide attack last year outside the US consulate in Karachi which killed 12 Pakistanis.

Yesterday's developments were watched closely in neighbouring India. Relations between India and Mr Musharraf reached a low point last year, when the countries massed their armies along the border, but tensions have eased in recent months.

Talat Masood, a former senior defence official, said it was too early to say who was behind yesterday's attack, but the most likely suspects were extremist religious forces opposed to Mr Musharraf's policy on Afghanistan and his efforts to reform Islamic schools that have become hotbeds of radicalism.

Mr Masood said: "I think these are the forces who want to eliminate him."

The explosion happened on the same day that Indonesia's President, Megawati Sukar-noputri, arrived in Pakistan on an official visit; she is to meet with Mr Musharraf today. Pakistan and Indonesia are the world's two largest Muslim nations.Pakistan has been ruled by its military for more than half of its 56 years. Mr Musharraf held legislative elections in Pakistan last year, but remains in charge of the country, having amended the constitution before the vote to give him the power to dismiss parliament and the prime minister.

In 1999, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif refused to allow an aircraft Mr Musharraf was on to land;the military then seized control of the country and arrested Mr Sharif.