Pakistan's PM survives assassination attempt

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The Independent Online

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's motorcade came under fire today from Taliban gunmen in an apparent assassination attempt. While no one was hurt, the attack underscores the expanding ambitions of Islamic militants in the volatile country.

Snipers repeatedly shot at the cars as they travelled to the airport to collect the prime minister. Mr Gilani and his staff were not in the car. Television images showed remarkably similar bullet marks on two cars, with two bullet marks causing cracks on each driver's window. The Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik has ordered an investigation into the "cowardly attack".

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack, which is believed to have been mounted by highly-trained shooters perched on a hill by the side of the main Islamabad highway. "We will continue such attacks on government officials and installations," said a Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan. It is not clear whether they were aware that Mr Gilani was not in the car, blurring the distinction between an ominous warning and a calculated assassination attempt.

While Mr Gilani's aides in the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) were relieved that no one was hurt, one acknowledged that it was a "scary threat". The PPP lost its leader, Benazir Bhutto, after she was assassinated in nearby Rawalpindi last December in a bomb and shooting attack that has been blamed on Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.

Prominent Pakistani politicians have narrowly cheated death over recent years. The driver of Mr Gilani's predecessor as prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, was killed in 2004 when a suicide bomber attacked his vehicle. Former president Pervez Musharraf survived three assassination attempts in 2002 and 2003. And his interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, was attacked twice.

With the change of government in Islamabad and Mr Musharraf's departure as head of state earlier this month, the militants' focus appears to have shifted to the new politicians leading the campaign against them. Asif Ali Zardari, Ms Bhutto's widower and the frontrunner in this week's presidential election, last week moved from his home in a quiet Islamabad neighbourhood amid increased security concerns.

Suicide bomb attacks have intensified over recent weeks. In one of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan's history, two bombers killed over 70 people and wounded over 100 at a munitions factory in the town of Wah, northwest of Islamabad a fortnight ago. The Taliban have said that these are "revenge" attacks for ongoing military operations along the Afghan border and in the Swat valley.

During a visit to Islamabad, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, said that the attack on Mr Gilani was "another reminder of the permanent threat that terrorism poses". In a speech today, Mr Cameron called on Pakistan to do more to "bear down" on extremist madrasas and deny militants a "safe haven" in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. "[It] is on your commitment to delivering these goals that Pakistan's international reputation will depend," he warned.

Western impatience with Pakistan's faltering campaign against militancy took a dangerous turn earlier today when Nato forces were accused of killing civilians in a Pakistani village near the border. In an unusual attack that is likely to inflame domestic hostility towards Washington, two US helicopters landed in the village in South Waziristan at dawn. Soldiers stepped out to open fire at villagers, killing seven including children, according to the Pakistan military.

It is the first time that US soldiers have reportedly mounted an operation with "boots on the ground", preferring the use of CIA-operated pilotless drones in the past. Pakistan's foreign ministry denounced the incursion as "a gross violation of Pakistan's territory". A spokesman added that a "strong protest" had been lodged over the "immense loss of civilian life".

For all its ritual insistence on sovereignty, the Pakistan government has routinely turned a blind eye to Nato attacks inside Pakistan in retaliation for cross-border militant raids. But relations between Islamabad and Washington have sharply deteriorated over recent months.

In June, 11 members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps were killed in a US-led airstrike. And in July Washington accused rogue elements in Pakistan's preeminent spy agency, the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of assisting Taliban militants, notably in the 7 July attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul.