Pakistani minister survives assassination attempt

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The Independent Online

A Government minister who had repeatedly spoken out against the Pakistan Taliban narrowly escaped an assassination attempt after gunmen ambushed his vehicle in the heart of the capital.

In an attack that apparently underlines the continued ability of militants to strike after weeks of disarray following the killing of a senior leader, two gunmen travelling on motorbikes sprayed the official car of Hamid Saeed Kazmi with automatic fire. Pakistan’s religious affairs minister was hit in the leg but his driver was killed, in the most high-profile attack on an elected official in recent years.

“This is an attempt to demoralise the people of Pakistan and those Pakistanis who are countering the Taliban mindset,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari. “But they will not succeed, the people and government are unified against this threat.”

The attack came a day after the government warned of Taliban threats against religious and political leaders. Mr Kazmi had himself received a flurry of death threats for speaking out openly against the Taliban’s brutality. The minister has been at the head of government efforts to rally religious opinion against the Taliban and had gathered an array of religious leaders to denounce militancy ahead of the army’s operation to clear militants from the Swat Valley.

Analysts said the attack appeared to have been the result of militants wishing to show their continued lethal abilities following the killing last month of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was struck by a missile fired from a US drone. In the weeks following his death, there have reports of mounting confusion within the Taliban and of disagreement as to who should assume leadership of the loosely affiliated group of militant factions that had been headed by Mr Mehsud. There was also a degree of chest-beating from Pakistani politicians, claiming the Taliban had been mortally wounded.

It appears that Hakimullah Mehsud, a senior lieutenant of Baitullah Mehsud, has emerged as the new leader, though some intelligence sources in Pakistan are reportedly convinced he too is dead. Reporters who have been contacted by the new leader say they recognise his voice from previous interviews.

As such, while it is unclear when planning for yesterday’s attack may have begun, experts said the assault sent a strong message from militants wishing to display their continued ability to strike. “I think this is one way of projecting their power in the heart of the Pakistan,” said Imtiaz Gul, an analyst and author of a recently published book on Pakistan’s militants. “After two other attacks - there was a recent suicide bomb in Mingora and an attack in Khyber - they have now tried to show that they are still very much there.”

Talat Masood, a former army general turned analyst, said he had no doubts that Hakimullah Mehsud was still alive and was now heading the militants. “What they want to do is to prove they can still be ruthless,” he added.

Yesterday’s attack happened just minutes after Mr Kazmi had left his ministry and as his vehicle was passing through a sensitive area of Islamabad close to many official buildings, including the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

It appears that the black car was fired upon from several directions, forcing it from the road. Bullets fired from the front pierced the windscreen and killed the driver, demobilising the vehicle. Blood was left smeared across the steering wheel and flecked onto the windscreen.

Meanwhile, the windows on either side of the backseat, where the minister had been sitting, were shot at repeatedly. Mr Kazmi was shot in the left leg, while his bodyguard has sustained serious injuries. Both were rushed off to the nearby Polytechnic Hospital where they were last night receiving treatment.

Mohammad Salahuddin, an employee at the religious affairs ministry, said he had rushed to the car in the aftermath of the attack and pulled out Mr Kazmi. “I saw a man running across the road and jumping on a motorcycle before speeding away, but I could not see his face, he told reporters..

In addition to raising fears about the ability of militants to strike at high-profile government targets, the attack on Mr Kazmi also exposed a glaring security lapse. Policemen at the scene said he had been travelling without his ministerial police escort. The gunmen had also been able to evade heavy security in the capital, mounting their attack and escaping without being stopped by any of Islamabad’s many checkpoints.

“The attackers wanted to score a point,” said Aftab Sherpao, a former interior minister who himself had survived two assassination attempts. “They wanted to show that even under these strict security measures in Islamabad they can still attack a federal minister.”